Karl Henning | 24 OCT 2019
Guitarist Jason Vieaux and the Escher String Quartet present an engagingly dynamic program whose common thread is homage to and assimilation of Spanish musical tradition. (In this recording, the Escher Quartet is, violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Brook Speltz. In the current roster, Boyd has been replaced by violinist Brendan Speltz.)
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet, Op.143, which he composed in 1950 is one of several musical works to emerge from the composer’s association with the legendary Andrés Segovia. The two first met when Segovia visited Florence (the city of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s birth) in 1934. Among several pieces which Castelnuovo-Tedesco subsequently composed for Segovia was a guitar concerto, which Segovia performed at a number of concerts in 1950.
The first movement of the Quintet, “Allegro, Vivo e Schietto” (“frankly, sincerely”) is brisk, lively and inviting. The composer juggles material with virtuosic, improvisatory freedom, and the whole movement is knit together by the recurrence of the opening declaration, as a kind of ritornello. The second movement, “Andante mesto,” opening with a mournful viola, is rhapsodic and tender. The third, headed “Scherzo: Allegro con spirito, Alla marcia,” moves at too brisk a pace, perhaps, to serve as a “march,” but its rhythmic brilliance is matched by coloristic effects in the strings. The “Finale: Allegro con fuoco” is a light-heeled Tarantella which relaxes halfway through into a Habanera. The quick tempo of the Tarantella returns, in part beaten out with col legno strokes, the strings come to a cadence, and the guitarist invites his colleagues to close the quintet out in a bracing Più mosso coda.
The “classic” in the program is Luigi Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet in D (“Fandango”) whose opening “Pastoral is Mozartean in its affable ease. The declarative “Allegro maestoso” yields, later in the movement, to gently floating harmonics. The third movement, “Grave assai” serves as a wistful respite before the concluding “Fandango,” a moderately fast dance in triple time.
The playful centerpiece of the album is 100 Greatest Dance Hits (1993) by Pulitzer prizewinner and Grawemeyer Award recipient Aaron Jay Kernis
The quirky appeal of the titles of the work’s four movements will need no explication from me. As the titles promise, the music is laced with both fun and tongue-in-cheek musical allusion. What the reader may not suspect merely from the titles, however, is that the music is luminous, expertly turned, and (in a sense) highly earnest, in a manner which reflects the classical aphorism: “Res severa est verum gaudium” (“True joy is a serious business”).
The first movement, “Invitation to the Dance Party,” is dominated by percussive sounds, powerfully suggestive of two flamenco dancers competitively clapping as they measure out the dance stage of a Seville cafe with their clattering heels. The rhythmic intensity carries over into the second movement, “Salsa Pasada,” together with a lyrical melody which emerges from and soars above the continuing party. The next, “MOR Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad,” begins by abruptly relaxing the pace with a gentle rocking, but midway through, the impulse to pick up the tempo will not be denied. The concluding “Disco Party on the Motorboat” sets a rhythmic ostinato chuffing along, aptly suggestive of a kind of “Manchego Loops” (John Adams having been one of Kernis’s instructors).
As with the Kernis, so is the entire album yet greater than the sum of its considerable and exuberant parts. The musicianship throughout is superb and focused, the ensemble, exhilaratingly tight. For all the right reasons, this album should be in contention for the feel-good chamber music release of the year. ■
Karl Henning is a composer, clarinetist and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Henning has also written reviews for MusicWeb International, BerkshireLinks.com and good-music-guide.com.