Wednesday 28 October 2020

Three Tributes: music by Kevin Puts, Andrea Clearfield and Gunther Schuller

Kevin Puts Quintet for Piano and Strings 'The Red Snapper', Andrea Clearfield Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, Gunther Schuller Sonata for Two Pianos, Four Hands;Innova

Kevin Puts Quintet for Piano and Strings 'The Red Snapper', Andrea Clearfield Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, Gunther Schuller Sonata for Two Pianos, Four Hands;Innova

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 October 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Three contemporary works commissioned in memory of musical parents by their musical sons

This disc of recent music by contemporary composers Kevin Puts, Andrea Clearfield and Gunther Schuller on Innova requires a little explanation. Entitled Three Tributes to our Parents, it consists of three pieces, Kevin Puts' Quintet for Piano and Strings 'The Red Snapper', Andrea Clearfield's Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra and Gunther Schuller's Sonata for Two Pianos, Four Hands which were commissioned by Robert and James Freeman in memory of their parents, Henry and Florence Freeman.

Henry Freeman was a double bass player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, leading the section for many years, and Florence Freeman was a freelance violinist. Both Robert and James Freeman are both musicians, James Freeman conducts Andrea Clearfield's piece and the two brothers play Gunther Schuller's sonata.

Commissioning music in someone's memory is an admirable activity, but of course there is no guarantee of what the resulting works will be like. Commissioning is like that!

Kevin Puts' opera Silent Night received its UK premiere by Opera North in 2018 and I interviewed the composer about it. His Quintet for piano and strings was commissioned in 2002 specifically as a companion piece to Schubert's Trout Quintet (which itself had been commissioned as a companion work to an earlier quintet with the same line up). The work is in three movements and opening Adagio, a scherzo and a final movement which is a set of variations on a melody which Puts wrote to set a poem by Jack Brannon about the red snapper. It is played here by Sandy Yamamoto(violin), John Largess (viola), Amy Levine Tsang (cello), Peter Lloyd (double bass) and Gilbert Kalish (piano)

The first movement opens with mysterious chords before developing into a yearning cello solo. Puts' language here is tonal and almost romantic with just a hint of spice to the harmonies. This develops into lyrically passionate string lines intertwining with more dynamic piano, the result is a slow build to a powerful climax which then quickly dissipates leaving us with the opening material. The second movement scherzo is almost Mendelssohnian in its scurrying lightness. The final movement is the longest, over half the work's total duration. The theme, stated in the piano, is fascinatingly uneven in its phrase lengths and has American folk hints to it. Puts then creates a virtuosic set of variations, by turns dramatic and vivid, fully of striking instrumental textures which tax each of the players, though there are quieter intense moments too. Whilst this work was clearly written to align with the line-up of Schubert's quintet, Puts has clearly not felt intimidated and this quintet feels like a confident statement in its own right, inhabiting its own musical world.

Andrea Clearfield's Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra was deliberately written to evoke some of the great 19th century romantic repertoire, inspired by an image of Florence Freeman playing the  violin with her family. The work is in a single movement and played here by soloist Gloria Justen with an instrumental ensemble of 11 players. Clearfield's style has a lyrical romanticism to it combined with a richness and complexity of harmony. The soloist's interaction with the ensemble makes it feel like large scale chamber music rather than a 19th century concert, with some wonderfully rhapsodic moments. The work is in a sequence of sections, each varying the emotional temperature and with some cadenza moments for the soloist (including a duet with the ensemble's double bass in a nod to Henry and Florence Freeman's instruments).

Gunther Schuller was a friend of Henry Freeman's and a great admire of his bass playing. Schuller's Sonata for Two Pianos was commissioned in 2010 and premiered in 2013. It is in three movements, Allegro energico, Andante, and Quarter note (dotted quarter note)=69-72. With his sonata we plunge into a more challenging world, Schuller's style is neither lyric nor romantic, and he utilises his two players to create dazzling textures, spiky harmonies and edgy atmosphere. There are moments when contemporary jazz seems edge in, and the opening of the second movement has a real bluesy feel to it though things get spiky almost immediately, whilst the busy third movement seems to be all about dynamic textures.

The disc has copious information about the composers, the works, the commissions and about Henry and Florence Freeman. It is obviously a labour of love; I did wonder how much of the text will be of interest to the general listener, though it was delightful to be introduced to Henry and Florence Freeman. I would have been intrigued to know quite why these three composers were chosen. The result is a disc of three highly contrasting works, which move between modern lyrical romanticism and the more challenging Schuller's jazz-influenced complexity. They are, I think, three works to be proud of having commissioned.

Kevin Puts (born 1972) - Quintet for piano and strings 'The Red Snapper' (2005)
Andrea Clearfield (born 1960) - Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (2007)
Gunther Schuller (1925-2015) - Sonata for two pianos (2010)

Sandy Yamamoto(violin)
John Largess (viola)
Amy Levine Tsang (cello)
Peter Lloyd (double bass)
Gilbert Kalish (piano)
Gloria Justen (violin)
James Freeman (piano, conductor)
Robert Freeman (piano)
Recorded UT-Austin, Texas in 2017, and Lang Concert Hall, Swarthmore College 15 April 2007 (live performance), 18 July 2015.
INNOVA  1CD [56.20]

Available from Innova.

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