Notes and Editorial Reviews
CANFIELD Duo Concertante1. String Quartet after Mendelssohn2. Mikrokosmos3. Music for a New Millenium4. Opus Pocus.5 Tenor Saxophone Sonata.6 Violin Sonata No. 3, “Tehillim”7 • 1
class="ARIAL12">Zachary Kingins (tpt); 1,2,3Rachel Patrick (vn); 2Won Hee Lee (vn); 2Dash Nesbitt (va); 2Kevin Kunkel (vc); 3,4Shuichi Umeyama (pn); 4Cole Tutino (vc); 6Kenneth Tse (t-sax); 6Linyu Wang (pn); 7Brian Allen (vn); 7Ilya Friedberg (pn); 5Arundo Donax Reed Qnt • ENHARMONIC 13-026 (2 CDs: 108:19)
Back in 34:4 I interviewed David DeBoor Canfield for this magazine (he has since then joined the staff of reviewers) and reviewed his first two CDs of chamber music. Being by default Fanfare’s resident Canfield expert, Volume 3 of the chamber works has now wended its way to me, and its arrival is as welcome as that of its predecessors. While (as will become apparent) I do not like all the works equally well, they all display in various ways the composer’s well-honed technical composition skills, the eclectic freedom and sureness with which he deploys his compositional technique of “free tonality,” and in many places his self-effacing, slightly Puckish sense of humor.
The Duo Concertante for violin and trumpet is cast in two brief movements, Andante semplice and Vivace energico. Canfield makes a successful blend of the unlikely duo by the simple device of having the trumpet play with a mute for most of its part. The first movement is redolent of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in its slower, simpler moments; the spikier second movement has a nervous energy more reminiscent of Hindemith or Bartók.
The String Quartet after Mendelssohn in A Minor (to give its title in English) is one of several “retro” pieces by Canfield that is deliberately written in the style of a past musical era. As the composer himself concedes, it does not sound at all Mendelssohnian, though there are passing references to that composer’s Violin Concerto and A-Minor Quartet. It is instead penned in a late romantic mode closer to a contemporary of Brahms, with an occasional glance forward to Korngold. (One motif in the first movement brings to mind the opening theme of the first movement of Ravel’s Quartet.) Throughout its four movements—Andante con moto - Poco allegro; Andante lamentoso; Vivo; and Andante con moto - Allegro molto—it is very soft-grained, quiet music, with even the Vivo scherzo movement played as a genteel Allegretto. Unabashed romantic that I am in my musical heart, this is my favorite of all of the composer’s many compositions that I have encountered.
Contrary to its name and structure, the Mikrokosmos is, according to the composer, not inspired by or indebted to the set of pieces by Bartók bearing that name. Instead, it is a tribute to Canfield’s Hungarian colleague Péter Fülöp (and dedicated to his son Dávid, who briefly studied violin), to whom Canfield sold his erstwhile used classical LP business, Ars Antiqua. Péter’s business is named Mikrokosmos, and David acts as his buying agent in the U.S. A series of 24 pedagogical miniatures for violin and piano, ranging from 0:29 to 1:38 in length, its numbers start at an elementary level and gradually increase in difficulty and complexity. All of them are quite tuneful, with many written in the style of Hungarian folk melodies, although no. 6 is much more dissonant and modern-sounding than the others, and Nos. 23-24 sound more jazzy than Hungarian.
Music for a New Millenium was, as its name indicates, composed on the night of December 31, 2000—January 1, 2001. The piece employs a tonal system of Canfield’s own devising, which he calls “Greek Inverse Harmony” and explains at some length in the booklet notes. As with the Duo Concertante, once again the composer employs another unlikely instrumental duo, this time cello and celesta, and again makes a most elegant combination of the two. The cello opens with the upward scalar line of his tonal system, and the celesta follows with a somewhat altered version of the hymn tune O God, our help in ages past. The cello pursues an ardently romantic line of almost Blochian passion before suddenly turning to a brief wiry and scratchy rumination near the end, while the celesta plays an accompaniment of harmonies generated by the tonal system, with a brief interlude of tolling chimes just before the end.
Opus Pocus is a tart, tongue-in-cheek divertissement for oboe, soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, and bassoon in five movements. Each movement depicts a famous figure connected with sorcery or magic: The Witch of Endor, Simon Magus, Merlin, Houdini, and David Copperfield. As I dearly love wind ensemble music, this is one of my favorite confections in Canfield’s oeuvre, especially given its overall witty lightness. As with virtually any modern tonal work in that genre, it inevitably brings to mind the Wind Quintet of Carl Nielsen, though in four of the five movements the composer quotes the famous opening bassoon motto of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. The work has some complex underlying structural elements that the composer helpfully details in his program notes. I do confess, however, that for me the first two of the five movements do not even remotely call up associations the composer intends. “The Witch of Endor”—one of the most chilling passages in the Old Testament—has an incongruously perky, upbeat sound to it, while nothing in “Simon Magus” brings to mind any sense of pleading. As pure music, however, I like them immensely.
A previous recording of the Sonata for Tenor Saxophone and Piano was reviewed in 35:6 by both Ronald E. Grames and Robert Schulslaper, both voicing approval. The composer and dedicatee both felt that the work would benefit from being played at somewhat faster tempos, and so decided to make a second recording of it for this album. Consisting of four movements—Moderato assai, Vivacissimo: A ritmo indiavolato, Adagio, and Tempo di bravura—it is penned in a quite accessible tonal idiom, especially the lovely, lyrical Adagio. The piece as a whole is not to my taste, however, for two reasons. First, with rare exceptions (e.g., Ravel’s use of it in his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), I have a pronounced dislike of the saxophone. (This sonata would work very well if arranged for English horn, bassoon, or trombone.) Second, the second and fourth movements are heavily indebted to jazz, an idiom I frankly find obnoxious. I also dislike the device (likewise employed in the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 2) of scraping a credit card across piano strings, an effect I find gimmicky, ugly, and unmusical. If you do not share any of those antipathies, then you will likely enjoy this work thoroughly.
Although the violin is Canfield’s own instrument, I have had mixed reactions to his sonatas; in my review in 34:4 I expressed approval of the first, but an intense aversion to the second that has not abated. My reaction to his newest foray into the genre is a 50/50 split. Initially I disliked it almost as intensely as its predecessor; upon repeated subsequent hearings I have come to enjoy the first and third movements, while still finding the second and fourth disagreeable. Subtitled “Tehillim,” its four movements seek to depict aspects of the character of four Old Testament Psalms, 121, 22, 137, and 103 in the Protestant numbering of the KJV translation. By far the most successful of the four movements is the first, which uses an ascending line in the piano part to suggest the Psalm’s subtitle “A Song of Ascents,” while repeated piano chords reflect the Psalm’s line “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved.” The succeeding movement, however, fails to reflect the composer’s intention to reflect the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” by a “movement full of dissonant gestures”; instead, it merely sounds like energetic dance music in a pseudo-Hebrew folk music idiom laced with stray discords to no real expressive effect. The third movement has a general tone of lamentation befitting the mourning of the exiles in Babylon; it is agreeable, but musically less inspired than the first movement, as it seems more generic and lacking in specificity.
Alas, the finale is where the piece for me comes a complete cropper, as an erroneously inverted view of the text leads to a corresponding flawed musical miscalculation. The composer states that “The dance-like character of this movement remembers King David’s dancing before the Ark of the Covenant as he reflects on the benefits of his relationship with God.” But Psalm 103 (my own favorite in the Psalter) is not a reflection of the benefits to man of his relationship with God, but rather a declaration of various aspects of the nature of God—his majesty, justice, mercy, and loving kindness—as manifested in his dealings with mankind. Furthermore, the rhetorical style of this psalm is one of solemn declamation; it is not one to which King David would have danced in merry abandon. While use of a stately dance music form such as the gavotte still might have worked, what Canfield has written instead is a leaping, jerky theme that sounds like fiddling at a hillbilly hoe-down. To my mind, this music could scarcely be more at odds with the Psalm’s true character and only serves (contrary to the composer’s intentions) to trivialize it. Of course, I recognize that someone with a different attachment to this text may have a very different reaction to this music; and had the composer been depicting one of the more gaily festive Psalms—Nos. 93, 98, 99, 100, 114, 117, and 149 come particularly to mind—I would probably find this movement far less objectionable, though it still wouldn’t be my omer of musical manna.
Out of the seven works contained in this set, then, I heartily welcome five, and have negative responses towards two for personal reasons that many readers may not share. Where I have reservations, I do so for two reasons that apply to many other composers as well. First, Canfield’s desire to use musical devices to represent extra-musical ideas sometimes tempts him to subordinate compositional technique to the making of effects, instead of allowing it to be effective on its own. Second, the use of extra-musical programmatic descriptions tends to generate either misunderstanding or rejection of their musical intentions. I think that Canfield (and many other composers) would do well to abandon both and simply focus upon composition of “absolute” music, to borrow Eduard Hanslick’s term.
As for the performances, Canfield is fortunate to have excellent musical advocates across the board, many of whom are connected with Indiana University in Bloomington as faculty or onetime students. Unlike the previous two volumes in this series, which in part drew upon recordings dating as far back as 1979, all the items in this set were recorded in 2011 and 2012. The recorded sound is clear and crisp, and the composer provides detailed notes on the music and several solo artists. I do wish that the information on performers and recording dates had been placed in the booklet in a table of contents instead of being squeezed onto the back CD card tray, which not only inconveniently requires one to hold the CD case instead of a booklet in hand for that information, but also necessitated printing the information in minuscule type that is extremely hard on the eyes. The two-CD set is made more enticing by being sold for the price of a single full-price CD. Despite my (perhaps highly idiosyncratic) caveats about the two sonatas, this collection, like its predecessors, is warmly recommended to lovers of contemporary chamber music.
FANFARE: James A. Altena Read less
Works on This Recording
Duo Concertante, for violin & trumpet by David DeBoor Canfield
Rachel Patrick (Violin),
Zachary Kingins (Trumpet)
Date of Recording: 03/03/2012
Length: 7 Minutes 12 Secs.
Mikrokosmos, for violin & piano by David DeBoor Canfield
Celeste] Shuichi [Piano Umeyama (Piano),
Rachel Patrick (Violin)
Date of Recording: 12/16/2011
Length: 19 Minutes 7 Secs.
Music for a New Millennium: Tempo di nuovo era by David DeBoor Canfield
Celeste] Shuichi [Piano Umeyama (),
Cole Tutino (Cello)
Date of Recording: 03/22/2012
Length: 4 Minutes 57 Secs.
Opus Pocus, for woodwind ensemble by David DeBoor Canfield
Arundo Donax Reed Quintet
Date of Recording: 03/24/2012
Length: 15 Minutes 57 Secs.
Sonata for tenor saxophone & piano by David DeBoor Canfield
Lin-Yu Wang (Piano),
Kenneth Tse ()
Date of Recording: 08/31/2012
Length: 14 Minutes 23 Secs.
Sonata No. 3 (Tehillim), for violin & piano by David DeBoor Canfield
Ilya Friedberg (Piano),
Brian Allen (Violin)
Date of Recording: 06/20/2012
Length: 14 Minutes 25 Secs.
String Quartet in A minor (after Mendelssohn) by David DeBoor Canfield
Dash Nesbitt (Viola),
Rachel Patrick (Violin),
Kevin Kunkel (Cello),
Won-Hee Lee (Violin)
Date of Recording: 01/16/2011
Length: 25 Minutes 19 Secs.
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