Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Two top wind instrumentalists take on a pianist to form a new trio, painting "Portraits" on CD

Their careers displaying great range as soloists, chamber musicians, and orchestral players, the McGill brothers have issued
Demarre McGill (from left), Michael McHale, and Anthony McGill.
their debut flute-clarinet-piano trio recording, "Portraits," on Cedille Records.

Necessarily, Anthony and Demarre McGill, in joining forces with the Irish pianist Michael McHale, specialize in music of our time, with transcriptions for this unusual combination tucked in for contrast.

Best-known on this CD in that category is Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," deftly arranged by McHale. As a tasteful arranger, McHale is also behind the disc's finale, an Irish traditional tune called "The Lark in the Clear Air."

The lyrical emphasis of these transcriptions is well-suited to the fully supported lyricism of each brother — Demarre on flute, Anthony on clarinet.  But it is never absent from the new works, either. Valerie Coleman's "Portraits" uses the evocative scene-painting of Langston Hughes' poems, hauntingly read before each movement by the actor Mahershala Ali, to showcase the smooth interaction of the brothers and their collaborator.

Coleman's music springs off the dancing atmosphere that pervades her chosen texts. The players seem fully attuned to the varied idioms sketched by the composition, which at 26 minutes is the disc's longest.

Similar immersion in vernacular forms characterizes Paul Schoenfield's Sonatina. The three-movement work plays with familiar genres that lie deep in the cultural fabric: "Charleston," "Hunter Rag," and "Jig" are the titles.  I was most impressed by the friskiness and fresh grappling with the Charleston and ragtime idioms. There's much independence in the wind writing, and the trio admirably sustains the agility and flexibility required. Tempos in the second-movement rag, for instance, hang back  from time to time, then surge forward subtly. A certain swagger overtakes the material sporadically. The Charleston movement both emphasizes the dance's rhythmic profile and takes in the smooth sentimentality of the Palm Court orchestras out of which the craze emerged. Only "Jig" leaned a little too much toward the conventional, though the high-register wind playing was thrilling.

Two character pieces are worth mentioning: Chris Rogerson's "A Fish Will Rise" has both the lightness of piscine movement and the volume of darting fishes' swift-running habitat. It has a believable three-dimensionality throughout its nine-minute span. The disc's nearest approach to advanced music of our time is Guillaume Connesson's "Techno-Parade," a brightly ecstatic salute to the counter-classical esthetics of techno-pop. I could happily leave the techno-pop genre alone, but this work invites  listeners not steeped in it to consider its attractions favorably.