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SOUNDS OF AMERICA

Suite. I like the searching quality of the first movement’s sparsely scored sections but I perceive no correlation between manifestations of winter’s end as described by the composer’s annotations and what the music actually sounds like. Sisler’s skilful combination of three themes over the course of the final movement holds interest until the coda’s stretto, where the textures turn muddy and indistinct. Because of the overall sameness of mood from work to work, I wouldn’t recommend hearing both suites in one sitting. It’s not clear if Michael Koenig’s performances were recorded in consultation with or in the presence of the composer but his excellent articulation and assiduous registrations help to make the best case for this repertoire. Jed Distler

Steffens Two Cells in Sevilla, or Don Quixote is Hungrya. Five Songs on Hölderlin, Op 95b b Sonja Bruzauskas mez bTali Morgulis pf a Members of the Greenbriar Consortium / David Kirk Navona F NV6174 (51’ • DDD) Libretto and German texts available from navona.com

The German composer Walter Steffens (b1934) has written in many styles and genres, from the intimate to the extravagant, and embraced everything from art songs, chamber music and orchestral works to opera. Among the extensive list of creations he has based on paintings is Guernica, a powerful orchestral depiction of Picasso’s masterpiece.

On this new disc, two recent works in the vocal sphere reveal how flexible Steffens can be according to the dictates of the respective texts. A post-Romantic sensibility in Five Songs on Hölderlin (2008) is reflected in expressive melodic lines wedded to rich harmonies. The verses aren’t printed in the CD booklet but they can be read – only in German – on the Navona Records website. Mezzo-soprano Sonja Bruzauskas and pianist Tali Morgulis shape the songs with elegant commitment.

Steffens switches gears in Two Cells in Sevilla, or Don Quixote is Hungry (2016), a one-act chamber opera in which the imprisoned protagonists hope to be fed more acceptable food by weaving exciting tales for the love-starved female cook. The prisoners turn out to be Miguel de Cervantes (creator of Don Quixote) and

Tirso de Molina (Don Juan), who run into some competition when a servant reads a Falstaff letter penned by a foreigner named Shakespeare.

The libretto, by Marec Béla Steffens (the composer’s son), possesses dashes of wit and colour that are embodied in the lively instrumental contributions but not always in the austere vocal writing. The music, full of Expressionist gestures, rarely smiles. Members of the Houston-based Greenbriar Consortium, nevertheless, give their all as led by David Kirk. Donald Rosenberg

‘Friends in Common Time’ A Albert Fantasia Brevik Pastorale Caplet Rêverie et Petite valse Kayali Bagatelle Kütt Flute Sonata Machajdík Senahh Timofeev Reminiscenza KW Walker Winter in the Woods Rebecca Jeffreys fl Alexander Timofeev pf Rebecca Jeffreys F 7 00261 46521-0 (55’ • DDD)

Flautist Rebecca Jeffreys and pianist Alexander Timofeev may not always be

‘Friends in Common Time’ on their new disc, given the various time signatures the eight represented composers employ. But the performances couldn’t be more amiable and intimate, and the musicians appear to savour the opportunity to introduce unknown repertoire that should appeal to listeners beyond the flute-piano world.

One of the composers is the Moldovanborn Timofeev himself. His Reminiscenza wears nostalgia lightly on its sleeve as the instruments engage in lyrical and jaunty conversation. Like that piece, several others say what they have to say in concise terms. Norwegian composer Tor Brevik’s Pastorale is a tender ballade and German composer Peter Kütt’s Sonatina a three-movement score juxtaposing poetic and soaring ideas.

The flute has a chance to take off during the cadenza in Adrienne Albert’s Fantasia, which also finds the instruments sharing winsome melodic material. Slovakian composer Peter Machajdík weaves haunting chords, figures, and textures in Senahh, though the disc’s absence of booklet notes precludes any insight into the title.

Subtle sonorities abound in Kevin W Walker’s Winter in the Woods for alto flute and prepared piano, which places the instruments in serene balance. The disc’s only potentially familiar composer is André Caplet (1878-1925), whose Rêverie et Petite valse comprises two charming movements that Jeffreys and Timofeev play with fine sophistication, as is true of everything they touch on this genial and distinctly uncommon recording. Donald Rosenberg

‘Mélancholie’ Bartók Two Elegies, Op 8b Sz41 Lourié Préludes fragiles, Op 1 Schumann Piano Sonata No 1, Op 11 Zhenni Li pf Steinway & Sons F STNS30097 (65’ • DDD)

Zhenni Li’s new Steinway release is a bolt from the blue. Li holds bachelor and master’s degrees from Juilliard, where she worked with Seymour Lipkin and Joseph Kalichstein. She continued postgraduate studies with Peter Frankl at Yale and with Stéphane Lemelin at McGill. Her beautiful sound is captured in full dimension and depth in this expertly engineered recording.

Li leaves no detail of Schumann’s F sharp minor Sonata unattended. The minute scrutiny brought to every element of the score would, in other hands, fragment and shatter the piece. Yet somehow, by dint of passionate identification and sheer force of will, Li pulls it off. Her extravagant and pervasive rubato, which occasionally risks derailing everything she sets in motion, strikes nonetheless as so heartfelt and intrinsic to her emotional response to the music as to be indisputable. There are moments when you wish for more than just a few consecutive measures of steady pulse, but then Li’s torrents of voluptuous sound sweep away any reservation. I am unprepared to venture how this interpretative approach might fare when applied to any other Romantic sonata, but the mercurial landscape of Schumann’s Op 11 is able to encompass it, and Li emerges, if not triumphant, at least thoroughly persuasive.

Translating the titles of Bartók’s Op 8b as either the Latinate ‘elegy’ or the Middle English-derived ‘dirge’ is misleading. The original Hungarian sírato is something closer to ‘keening at graveside’. In any case, Bartók’s precise notation of these folkinspired works seems the antithesis of the fulsome Scriabinesque melange of Li’s conception. Arthur Lourié’s 1910 Preludes, on the other hand, strike just the right note of elusive piquancy.

Li impresses as an artist of tremendous conviction, who fascinates even as she provokes. Time will tell. Patrick Rucker gramophone.co.uk

GRAMOPHONE OCTOBER 2018 VII

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