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Japanese Guitar Music, Vol. 4

Schin-ichi Fukuda & Shigenori Kudo

Despite this album’s title and the top billing of the classical guitarist, most of the melodies are assigned to Shigenori Kudo, whose flutes breathe forth an airy loveliness characteristic of each selection but the three that he sits out. So consider the program a Kudo recital highlighted by the flute solo “Air” and featuring the expert accompaniment of Schin-ichi Fukuda. How expert, exactly? He captures the Piazzolla-inspired inflections of “Kojyo no Tsuki” as vividly as he captures the liquid properties of “Wave Recollections” and “Water Drops.”

On the Path to H.C. Andersen 

Hanzhi Wang

The somber timbres—part calliope, part flute—that Wang conjures from her instrument in the three Martin Lohse compositions that make up this disc’s first half are lyrical enough to dispel any notions you might have acquired from zydeco or polkas about the accordion’s expressive potential. The experimental timbres—part suspense thriller, part art-house film—that Wang conjures in Jesper Koch’s “Jabberwocky,” Bent Lorentzen’s “Tears,” and Sven Aaquist’s “Saga Night” will make sure that those notions never reassemble themselves and return. 

Whispering Fragrance: The Chamber Works of Stephen Yip

Various artists

Born in Hong Kong and now a U.S. resident, Stephen Yip composes music that’s probably nowhere near the top of President Xi’s playlist. Although it utilizes traditional Chinese instruments almost exclusively, the traditions that it evokes have more in common with those of free jazz than with those of Beijing opera. And don’t be fooled by titles such as “In Seventh Heaven” and “Peace of Mind”: Yip’s sounds are as agitated and demanding as anything ever to drive the next-apartment neighbors of Ornette Coleman fans nuts.

Mutsuo Shishido: Complete Works For Piano

Akina Yura

Anyone tired of the war on “cultural appropriation” will find relief in this omnibus. Although Shishido made a priority of giving his works a Japanese character, his studies with Olivier Messiaen and André Jolivet guaranteed Western (or at least Parisian) influences as well. Another Shishido priority: formal diversity. Sandwiched between the opening two suites and the concluding two sonatas are three pieces that clock in at under five minutes combined. And in his compositions for children, he achieved a nimble playfulness in which Akina Yura takes obvious delight.

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Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

A queen remembered

Obituaries rarely discussed Aretha Franklin’s two fervent Christian albums

In the days following her death on Aug. 16 from pancreatic cancer, Aretha Franklin was alternately eulogized as the “Queen of Soul” and upbraided as a self-absorbed diva. (Her funeral occurs today in Detroit.) 

The praise vastly outweighed the excoriation and focused on her indomitable voice, her string of iconic late-’60s hits, and her longevity. (Her final album of original material, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, came out in 2014, 58 years after the recording of her first, Songs of Faith.)  

The upbraiding focused on her adolescent pregnancies, her unhappy marriages, her propensity to leave promoters and fans in the lurch by canceling concerts and other professional obligations at the last minute, and her weight.  

Both perspectives were accurate. They were also connected.

The daughter of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a Detroit-based, superstar Baptist preacher with many famous friends and a latitudinous attitude toward sexual morality, Franklin grew up in a feverish atmosphere combining faith, celebrity, and hedonism. Her mother, fed up with C.L.’s womanizing, left the family when Aretha was 6 and died three years later.  

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A world of Variations

Part II: Clarity and warmth showcase the 2018 Goldbergs

Since the appearance of the last issue’s review addressing new recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, at least two more have been released. And the one by the harpsichordist Wolfgang Rübsam (Naxos Classics) surpasses even those by Diego Ares and Yoshiko Ieki (see “There-and-back-again journeys,” Sept. 1).

Actually, Rübsam’s instrument is the Baroque-period lute-harpsichord, which differs from contemporary harpsichords in its facilitation of the independent voicing of polyphonic melodies. Hearing Rübsam play the Variations on his specially commissioned Keith Hill model at the slow, concentration-inducing tempos that he prefers is like looking at snowflakes (32 to be precise) under a microscope.

The crystalline clarity of each detail invites the listener to admire the intricacy and the transparency of each Variation’s construction. (The arpeggiated chord in the Aria’s 11th measure seems to crumble in slow motion.) If the mind of Bach, as opposed to the minds of the performers, could be said to shine through any 2018 Goldberg, Rübsam’s is it.

Of course, when the performers’ minds are as translucent as the composer François Meïmoun’s, there can be plenty to savor in the hues that the Variations acquire thereby. In its IBS Classical recording of Meïmoun’s arrangement for strings, the female string quartet Quatuor Ardeo achieves a glowing, legato quality notwithstanding the members’ occasional pizzicati. Their Variation 30 (the Quodlibet) doesn’t so much march as glide, and their arpeggiated Aria chord practically melts.

A similar warmth pervades BIS Records’ Variations as performed by the classical accordionist Andreas Borregaard. One may not need both Borregaard’s and Philippe Thuriot’s 2015 accordion renditions, but there are differences, one of which is that Borregaard opts for subtler, more subdued effects and a more cloistered if not quite hermetic mood that some listeners anyway might consider more appropriate to the Variations’ innate grandeur than Thuriot’s somewhat festive, public-spirited take.

And lest anyone think that Borregaard has come by his approach haphazardly, there’s this self-penned confession from his liner notes: “I’m deeply attracted by the fact that music can make us completely forget about Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for a brief—but remarkably intense—moment.” His arpeggiated Aria chord shimmers.

Speaking of comparisons and contrasts (and subtlety), admirers of Beatrice Rana’s 2017 piano Variations may want to investigate Reiko Fujisawa’s piano Variations (Quartz Music) if only to ponder the ways in which minuscule differences (such as Fujisawa’s harder attack) can accumulate gradually into larger ones.

In other words, it’s a lot easier to tell whether Rana or Fujisawa is playing when one juxtaposes their performances as a whole than when one juxtaposes them Variation by Variation. (Meanwhile, why Fujisawa has appended as an encore Toru Takemitsu’s determinedly non-Bachian “Rain Tree Sketch II (In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen)”—other than to demonstrate her delicacy of touch in the service of impressionistic evocation, that is—is anyone’s guess.)

Contending for the Most Ambitious Goldberg Variations of 2018 Award are New Goldberg Variations (Dreyer Gaido) by David Geringas (violoncello) and Ian Fountain (piano) and Goldberg 1.5 (Footprint) by My Eklund (recorder) and Lisa Oscarsson (organ), aka Kondens.

Both albums come with liner notes that unpack their backstories and aims. But the short version is that they comprise suites in which various composers use Bach’s Variations as a framework within which to make fresh musical statements. As theatergoers know, the playwright Tom Stoppard made similar use of Hamlet for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Were one to wax Shakespearean in describing Kondens’ mysterious, dreamlike timbres, The Tempest would come to mind.

And although the pleasures of New Goldberg Variations are more cerebral than intuitive, they’re pleasures all the same.

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