By Miranda Wilson
Two related but markedly different string-playing traditions, Irish fiddling and the classical string quartet, come together in seamless fusion on this album by the Irish master fiddler Martin Hayes and New York ensemble Brooklyn Rider. Ten arrangements of traditional Irish tunes are juxtaposed with two original compositions, one by Hayes himself.
Brooklyn Rider’s chameleonic ability to adapt their classical string technique to the demands of radically different music traditions is well known. In Butterfly, they do it again. With Hayes as the figurehead, the ensemble produces interpretations of Irish jigs and reels that are at once toe-tapping and profoundly serious. An arrangement by Kyle Sanna of Hayes’ Maghera creates an overlap between the fiddling style and classical minimalism, while the signature tune The Butterfly brings together artificial harmonics and other extended classical techniques with a brilliant improvisatory fiddle solo by Hayes. The highly ornamented modal melodies of Port na Bpúcaí, the longest and most substantial track on the disc, seem to blur and merge between the instruments, creating an effect of almost unbearable melancholy. P Joe’s Reel, a tribute to Hayes’ father, has a frenetic energy that builds spectacularly in speed and energy. After such a feat, it makes sense to end the album with the slower pace of Hole in the Hedge, bringing this virtuoso collection to an emotionally moving conclusion.
Strauss: Don Quixote
Daniel Müller-Schott, cello; Herbert Schuch, piano; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, cond. (Orfeo)
When we listen to Richard Strauss’ early cello sonata side-by-side with the symphonic poem Don Quixote, it’s hard to believe they’re by the same composer. When Strauss composed the sonata at the ripe old age of 19, he hadn’t yet found his compositional voice. But while it clearly looks back to the earlier 19th-century style of Mendelssohn, it is still an important work in Strauss’ career trajectory. Don Quixote, by contrast, is a titanic work from the height of the composer’s maturity.
In this disc, cellist Daniel Müller-Schott ambitiously brings the two works together, with transcriptions of two middle-period lieder as a kind of bridge. Together with pianist Herbert Schuch, he presents an elegant interpretation of the sonata, with long phrases and frequent portamento that are consistent with the performance practices of the era. This is a piano-heavy score, and because of this there appears to have been a deliberate decision to place the microphones in a way that favors the cello.
It’s a testament to Müller-Schott’s musicianship that he is equally convincing as the tragicomic anti-hero of Don Quixote. Violist Christopher Moore is the perfect foil in the role of Sancho Panza, while the Melbourne Symphony brings Strauss’ unconventional sound effects brilliantly to life under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis.
The two transcriptions, Zueignung and Ich trage meine Minne, are cleverly done. The arranger, unacknowledged in the liner notes, makes optimal use of the cello’s range by transposing certain passages down an octave, while reserving the original high pitches for moments of emotional emphasis.
With Somos, the Villalobos Brothers balance virtuosity and ambition with playfulness and compassion. One on hand, the three violinist siblings plus childhood friend and guitarist Humberto Flores continue to mix classical chops with a cornucopia of traditional folk forms including son jarocho, trova, and son huasteco. On the other, these sons of Xalapa, Mexico, also embrace American rock idioms, jazz dissonance, and effervescent pop on their new collection. The title alone, which means we are, catapults past the moniker of their 2012 set, Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, taken from a designation once stamped on their U.S. entry visas.
Somos is both a declaration of identity and a musical travelogue that traces how brothers Ernesto, Albert, and Luis have become citizens of the world. As such, they add political awareness to their potent multicultural cocktail. Hombres de Arcilla, which commemorates 43 missing students abducted from a rural college by state police, plays like the overture of a Broadway show—if that production incorporated anxious cinematic underscores, down-tempo jazz, and whiplash violins scrawling vapor trails across the sky.
On Xalapa Bang, tangled violins that mimic pirouetting dust devils and shrieking siroccos are crisscrossed by guest Arturo O’Farrill’s atonal tumbling jazz piano. The music is bracing and upbeat, but the Spanish lyrics, sung by the brothers, laments a peaceful protest crushed by the iron fist of an oppressive state.
In contrast, Destino hews closer to the quartet’s rural Mexican roots. Riding swaying three-part cantina violin, an a cappella corrido chorus sings of international travelers still emotionally tethered to home.
On Somos’ title track, the Villalobos Brothers’ activism and humanity conjoin. As ascending scythes of violin wheel overhead, the brothers decry freedom that welcomes bloodshed and progress that leaves children starving in its wake. The tune turns triumphant when the singing siblings counter that Mexicans, Colombians, Cubans, and Uruguayans are all brothers.
At a time when democracies have gotten increasingly cornered into culs de sac of bitter infighting, the Villalobos Brothers turn to courage, humanity, and an infections joie de vivre to find a way forward. —Pat Moran
Natalie Padilla, fiddle
With an exacting attention to detail that betrays her classical training and an infectious energy drawn from her study of Texas-style fiddle under the tutelage of her award-winning fiddle-playing mother Nancy, Natalie Padilla serves up 15 waltzes, barn-burners, and laments on Fireweed. It’s a tribute to Padilla’s dedication to authenticity that each of these originals could easily pass for old-time fiddle tunes found on field recordings.
The collection’s title track builds upon its one-part clawhammer banjo melody with shuddering fiddle switchbacks that shadow Padilla’s vocal about blossoming fireweed giving way to approaching winter’s unmistakable signs.
Padilla turns to old-time tuning cross-A on Goose, which takes its title from a friend’s boisterous terrier. Here restless scrawls of fiddle arc skyward like ascending coils of woodsmoke. Padilla’s bowing winds whiplash curves over clog dance–mimicking percussion on the Celtic-flavored Tetonia.
On the Texas-style Janet’s Waltz, harmonized fiddles chatter, dropping double-stops, as they sashay out onto the dance floor. Over the Clouds, a funky F-major ditty, suggests dual fiddles swaying on a fulcrum before descending on spinning-jenny bowing.
Padilla’s whippet-swift fiddle spins like a flywheel on Peasant and Prince, while her feathered vocals contrast sharply with lyrics about winter winds scouring a frozen wasteland. Similarly, on Ron and Lavone her wheeling and weaving fiddle whines like a whirlwind finding a chink in a cabin’s wall.
Even the humorous mea culpa Piggy Piggy Pie houses a sting. As Padilla’s elastic bowing snaps to attention with seesawing tremolo, her repetitive good-time vocal can’t conceal her guilty apology to cute little piglets for continuing to eat pork.
With virtuosity, authenticity, and humor, Padilla celebrates the hand-crafted front-porch tunes that continue to inspire her, capturing the music’s campfire singalong spontaneity. At the same time, she never loses sight of roots music’s hard-scrabble origins, where the bucolic can turn brutal with a simple shift in the wind. —PM