VIENNA AND THE WEST / WOLFGANG: Road Signs / Judith Farmer, bsn; Nic Gerpe, pno / Passenger to Vienna / Tereza Stanislav, vln; Ben Hong, cel; Joanne Pearce Martin, pno / Route 33 / Gloria Cheng, pno / Windows / Edgar David Lopez, cl; Farmer, bsn; Nadia Shpachenko, pno / Impressions / Lopez, cl; Farmer, bsn; Amy Jo Rhine, Fr-hn; Stanislav, vln; Robert Brophy, vla; Andrew Shulman, cel; Steve Dress, bs / From Vienna With Love / Maia Jasper White, vln; Brophy, vla; Charles Tyler, cel; Robert Thies, pno / Albany TROY1760
I’ve been fascinated by Gernot Wolfgang’s jazz-influenced classical music for some time now, but with rare exceptions I’ve only heard his pieces in potpourri albums containing works by other composers. Here, however, he has teamed up with bassoonist Judith Farmer to produce this album, labeled as Vol. 4, of his “groove-oriented chamber music.”
The opening duo for bassoon and piano, Road Signs, is a typical example. The opening contains rootless chords on the piano while the bassoon ruminates for a while before exploring a modern melodic line. All of this is purely classical in both form and rhythm, despite some syncopations in the piano part, but as the music continues one hears these syncopations becoming more insistent and complex, leading into a slower middle section that begins with a long bassoon solo. Then it’s the piano’s turn to solo, playing sparse notes, again with rootless chords. This leads back into another syncopated section with both instruments, including musical pauses to intrigue the listener. By and large, however, this piece leans more towards Wolfgang’s purely classical side though it is very creative.
Interestingly, the very opening of the piano trio Passenger to Vienna sounds like a continuation of Road Signs, but as soon as the violin and cello enter, the piano begins playing a very jazz-like background figure while the foreground music also leans towards a jazz bias. To be honest, these performers as a whole don’t capture the jazz feel quite as strongly as they should except for pianist Joanne Pearce Martin who definitely “gets the feeling” and helps push the violinist and cellist in the right direction, but the music is so good and so interesting that just having the strings play as syncopated as they do helps feed into what the piano is doing. In several instances, Wolfgang separates the two strings, having them play with the pianist as soloists while at other times—particularly when the piano is playing—he has the strings play together. This vacillation of styles gives the work a feeling of a jazz combo rather than a classical piano trio. At one point, the piano just plays sparse notes and chords while the two strings play edgy bowed figures. It’s a very intriguing piece because you can never tell who is going to solo next or where the music is really going. Eventually, we move into a rapid section in which the piano plays running single-note lines while the strings play pizzicato behind it. The rhythmic pulse here is, however, more classically-oriented, as is the musical development before moving back to a jazz feel. This is yet another way that Wolfgang plays cat-and-mouse with the listener.
Route 33 is a solo piano that is mostly classical in orientation, using atonal chords and numerous pauses, which Wolfgang likens to “an imaginary road trip, interrupted by a series of unrelated dreams.” (Maybe the traveler has also stopped at some of Scott Wollschleger’s psychedelic gas stations in Pennsylvania.) Pianist Gloria Cheng, who commissioned the piece, plays it with a wonderful feeling of whimsy.
Windows for clarinet, bassoon and piano beginning slowly with whimsical if somewhat uneasy-sounding themes played by the two winds. The music then moves into a gentle sort of rocking rhythm, slightly jazz-tinged with the clarinet and bassoon lines more serpentine that jazzy while the pianist plays in a much more syncopated style (and has a solo that almost sounds like an improvisation). Then the piano falls away to allow the two winds to play strange interwoven figures, again in a purely classical vein, and later on there’s an extended piano solo, very slow and uses broken figures before it moves back to an easy-sounding medium tempo with all three instrument interacting. At long last, a bit of a jazz feel comes into the music, again propelled mostly by the keyboard. The pianist then plays a simple rhythm in 4 while the winds take turns in slow swirling figures. A very intriguing piece!
By contrast, Impressions for clarinet, bassoon, piano, French horn and a string quartet consisting of violin, viola, cello and bass swings from the outset. Wolfgang clearly had fun cooking this piece up on commission from Ursula Kimmel for the Los Angeles-based chamber music series Pacific Serenades, and pulls out all the stops in its short multiple movements. The second section, by contrast with the first, begins in a purely classical vein, played by the string quartet without the other instruments, but when the full octet comes back in the music suddenly bursts into a funky jazz beat à la the early-1960s Blue Note style, except with classical development thrown in, as well as various pauses and more classical interludes (including a brief clarinet-bassoon duet). The bass then plays pizzicato like its jazz cousin and the music assumes a halfway stance between jazz and classical. The second movement could be described as a classical slow blues, and is equally creative, including a slow section in which the violin and viola duet a cappella. In the brief final movement, “Country Road,” the music sounds almost like something the Turtle Island String Quartet would have come up with. For me, this was the highlight of the album, the most imaginative and swinging piece in this set.
We finish our musical journey with From Vienna With Love for piano quartet. This is a largely tonal work that begins with a lovely slow passage before moving into a much jazzier theme in an uneven meter that almost sounds like something Dave Brubeck would have thought up. These two moods continue to juxtapose each other, though the middle section really does sound like jazz and very strongly accented jazz at that. Even when the tempo eases up, the jazz feel continues slightly in the piano accompaniment. We end with a few bars of uptempo music.
This is an extremely enjoyable and musically intriguing CD, and I highly recommend it.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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