United Kingdom Sulek, Kenny, Sandström, Casterede, Bassman: Katy Jones (trombone), Christopher Williams (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 28.11.2014. (GPu)
Stjepan Sulek (1914-1986): Sonata vox Gabrieli
John Kenny (b.1957): Sonata for Trombone, Movements 1 and 2
Jan Sandström: Song for Lotta
Jacques Casterede (1926-2014): Sonatine
George Bassman (1914-1997): I’m Getting Sentimental Over You
The prospect of a recital devoted to twentieth-century pieces for solo trombone (sometimes with piano accompaniment, sometimes without) has its daunting aspects. Some modern pieces for solo trombone have seemed more like exercises in noise management (even if interesting ones!) than in composition. (Would it be unkind to mention some of the work of Globokar or Jean-Pierre Drout?). The audience for Katy Jones’ excellent recital was a little on the sparse side, so perhaps some potential customers had indeed been put off by the prospect, since advance publicity provided no details of what exactly would be performed.
They needn’t have worried. Katy Jones’ choice of pieces avoided the wilder reaches of the repertoire (though given her obvious technical accomplishment and command of her instrument, as well as her evident musicality, I feel sure that she could have handled, say, Berio’s Sequenza V perfectly well). What she did give her audience mixed the relatively familiar (at least to aficionados of the instrument) with the little-known. I didn’t feel quite so ignorant when Kevin Price, Head of Brass and Percussion Studies at RWCMD and himself a trombonist, told me that he didn’t know some of the pieces at all. All the works played were eminently listenable to, accessible and comprehensible (at least sufficiently so) at a single hearing, and the attractiveness of the whole experience was enhanced by the soloist’s charming and informative spoken introductions (particularly valuable in the absence of detailed programme notes). Jones’ playing throughout was technically assured and thoroughly musical, while Christopher Williams was an accomplished and supportive accompanist.
The Sonata vox Gabrieli (the primary allusion is surely to the archangel, but I imagine that we are intended to think of Giovanni Gabrieli too) by the Croatian composer Stjepan Sulek (who was born just a hundred years ago) was written in 1973, commissioned by the International Trombone Association, and has become an acknowledged staple of the solo repertoire for the instrument, played by musicians of the standing of Christian Lindberg (and also often played by advanced students). A little less than eight minutes long, Jones and Williams did something like full justice to its lyrical, quasi-romantic elements, as well as to its passages of rapid runs. As an opener it evidenced both Jones’s instrumental agility and her ability to make her instrument sing.
Jones followed ‘Vox Gabrieli’ with the first two movements of John Kenny’s Sonata for [unaccompanied] Trombone. Kenny is active as a trombonist in many areas of music, from contemporary classical and jazz to baroque, and also teaches at the Guildhall. As one might expect from Kenny, the sonata exploits many of the instrument’s resources, whether in the long-held notes of the opening of the first movement or the beautiful bell-like clarion calls at its close. The juxtaposition of upper and lower registers in quick succession made for some delightfully witty effects, which Jones clearly relished. But she also respected the elegant shape of that first movement, as well as the syncopated, jazz-like effects in the second movement, playing long fluid lines with immaculate breath control.
The Swede Jan Sandström is perhaps best known (certainly in the context of the trombone) for his Motorbike Concerto (1988-9) for trombone and orchestra, which has been widely performed. His second trombone concerto Don Quixote (1994) was written for Christian Lindberg and he has also written trumpet concertos for Håkan Hardenberger, so his understanding of brass instruments is very evident. I recall reading (though I can’t now remember where!) that the Song for Lotta was written around the same time as his Motorbike Concerto, when Lotta (the daughter of a friend) began to learn the trombone and Sandström promised to write a concerto for her too later (though she gave up the instrument too soon for that to happen!). There is a childlike (but by no means childish) quality to the piece, gently lyrical and full of both warmth and innocence. It got an exquisitely lovely performance (quite without mere sentimentality) from both soloist and accompanist on this occasion.
The Sonatine by Jacques Casterede (who died in April of 2014) is a piece much played by trombone recitalists (and with good reason). Casterede was fond of calling his chamber pieces ‘sonatines’ – perhaps out of modesty or perhaps because he thought of them as essentially pieces for teaching purposes and for the honing of technique, rather than as ‘serious’ pieces of music. This particular work, written in 1957, (and perhaps some others, such as his 1985 Sonatine d’avril for flute and guitar) might properly have been designated Sonatas, since that term would do fuller justice to their considerable musical substance and imagination. Casterede is an interesting, distinctively French composer (I hope, one day, to hear his 1983 piano work Hommage à Thelonious Monk). In this Sonatine there is a real sense of dialogue between trombone and piano and a good deal of striking writing, not least in the many changes of meter, especially in the intriguing rhythmic effects in the opening ‘Allegro vivo’ and the closing ‘Allegro’. The central ‘Andante sostenuto’ is perhaps a little disappointing melodically speaking, but the writing for muted trombone in this movement brings rewards of its own. By way of balance, the final allegro has the kind of vitality one associates with Françaix or Poulenc. We ought to hear more of Casterede’s music, especially when played as well as this piece was by Jones and Williams.
This fine recital closed with a piece which took us straight into the jazz (or at any rate ‘swing’) tradition of which composers such as Casterede were so vividly aware – I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, one of the relatively few compositions by George Bassman still widely familiar. (Although admirers of the Marx Brothers may remember the music he wrote for films such as A Day at The Races and Go West). I’m Getting Sentimental Over You did, of course, reach a very wide audience in its early days when adopted as the signature tune of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in the 1930s. It has sometimes been played and recorded by jazz musicians since, being sung, for example by both Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day, as well as trumpeter Roy Eldrige and tenor sax player Stan Getz. Pianists to have recorded it include Oscar Peterson and, more surprisingly, Thelonious Monk (again!). Jones and Williams gave us a fairly ‘straight’ reading of the tune, in which Williams work at the piano provided well-judged rhythmic and harmonic support for Jones’ lyrical interpretation of Bassman’s melody. It made for an enjoyable end to a thoroughly engaging and rewarding recital.