Max Bruch (1838-1920) received his earliest musical training from his mother, a singer, and in his lifetime he was best known for his many vocal and choral compositions. Now he is chiefly remembered for a handful of instrumental works that reflected his songlike approach to melody, including the Violin Concerto No. 1 and Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra. Those same expressive qualities distinguish the Eight Pieces (Op. 83), which Bruch composed in 1910 for his son, a clarinetist. Most of the short movements are abstract and marked only with a tempo indication, but the sixth (played third within this abbreviated suite) adds the poetic label of Nocturne.
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), the prolific and often irreverent French composer who first found fame within the upstart clique dubbed “les Six,” wrote more than a hundred works for stage and film. In 1936, he extracted this Suite (Op. 157b) from the incidental music he wrote for a play about a soldier with amnesia. Whether adapting South American dance rhythms (a byproduct of his years in Brazil) or manipulating folk-like themes a la Stravinsky, Milhaud had a knack for making just about any type of sound fit effortlessly within his lucid and inclusive voice.
Starting with his side job as a teenager accompanying silent films at the piano, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) honed the dramatic flair that served him so well in the dozens of scores he wrote for films and stage plays. His friend Levon Atovmian arranged some of the most charming excerpts from those scores into this set of Five Pieces, beginning with a Prelude that first appeared in the 1955 film The Gadfly. The Gavotte and Elegy come from incidental music composed in 1934 for The Human Comedy, adapted from Balzac’s nineteenth-century classic, with explains the antique touches and French flavor. The Waltz here is not Shostakovich’s famous film cue known as Waltz No. 2, but it mines similar harmonic territory in a suave minor key. The rustic Polka comes from a 1935 ballet, The Limpid Stream, where it originally accompanied “The Dance of the Milkmaid and the Tractor Driver.”
Using classical instruments and techniques, the American composer Paul Schoenfeld (b. 1947) writes music that often seems just as well-suited to a lively café or a tipsy wedding reception as a quiet concert hall. This Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, written in 1990 for the clarinetist David Shifrin, corresponds to a typical classical structure while also incorporating aspects of Jewish culture, starting with a Freylakh, the Klezmer dance style that takes its name from the Yiddish word for “festive.” Instead of a scherzo, the second movement is a biting March with shades of Shostakovich, followed by a slow Nigun (Hebrew for “melody”), reflecting the free-flowing vocal style that is at the core of Jewish liturgical singing. The fast finale, Kozatzke, references the Ukrainian Cossack dance—that energetic move which involves kicking out one leg at a time from a deep knee bend.
© 2019 Aaron Grad.
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