Duo Cavatine: Nuages
David Jaeger: Chamber Music for Viola
2023 is shaping up to be quite the year for Canadian composer David Jaeger. Consider: in March Elizabeth Reid issued a superb collection of his viola music on Redshift Records, and now another set of chamber pieces for the instrument has appeared on Navona. Adding to the abundance, Duo Cavatine’s just-released Nuages couples a Jaeger work with sonatas for cello and piano by Francis Poulenc and Alfred Schnittke. Even if the Wisconsin born-and-raised Jaeger (b. 1947) hadn’t established himself as a composer, his place in Canadian music history would be secure for two other accomplishments, as a founding member of the pioneering Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE) and as the radio music producer for CBC’s contemporary music program Two New Hours, which ran from 1978 to 2007. Testifying to the contributions he’s made, Jaeger was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2018.
Chamber Music for Viola is a fitting complement to Reid’s release in featuring works for solo viola and pieces for viola and piano; enhancing the appeal of the Navona release is its closing setting, which adds a mezzo-soprano to the instrumental pair. Many of the works’ movements are so concise, they could be deemed miniatures, yet that in no way argues against them. Reflecting the broad scope of his interests (inspiration often comes from poetry and the visual arts), ample ground is explored in a recording that flatters both composer and performers.
If he seems particularly drawn to writing for the viola, it might have something to do with the fact that as a boy he found his mother’s instrument hidden in the closet (she’d put it aside once her six children began appearing) and thereafter became drawn to its expressive sound. His output currently boasts eighteen viola compositions, and there’s no reason to think won’t be more. NYC-based violist Carol Gimbel, who met Jaeger in Toronto in 2009, is the primary voice on the recording, with her duo partner, the superb pianist Cullan Bryant, accompanying her on three of the five works. Metropolitan Opera star Marina Poplavskaya joins them on Three Songs, the work significant also for using poems by Gimbel as the texts. Captivated by the musical quality of her poetry, Jaeger persuaded her to let him set some of it to music, Three Songs the memorable result. Ever responsive to the words, Poplavskaya brings the material to life with thoughtfully calibrated emotional shadings and vocal inflections, be it the mischievous devilry of “The Teeny Tiny” or the chromatic sinuousness of “The Mystical Man” (which could be mistaken for a song by one of the composers associated with the Second Viennese School).
Commissioned by Gimbel and Bryant, Jaeger’s Sonata no. 2 for viola and piano was composed in 2022 and draws melodically from art songs set to poems by the Scottish writer David Cameron. As in the pieces that follow, the sonata’s four movements are marked by extreme contrasts in style and tone. Also like the other four, the work finds Jaeger operating within traditional musical idioms but refracting them through his idiosyncratic sensibility. Initially steeped in darkness and foreboding, the opening movement “With a certain abandon” eventually wrests itself free of its demons to emerge into spiritually replenishing air. Whereas “Quasi scherzo” and “Vivo” are spirited and playful, “Penseroso” is intensely introspective. Contrast is even more pronounced in the subsequent Diptych for viola and piano, the “Lament” dolorous, “Defiance” militant and proud.
A Gimbel poem also served as an inspiration of sorts for White Moon Legend for solo viola as the emotional tone of its closing verse helped Jaeger shape the material and develop its melodic character. In the recording’s first of two unaccompanied performances, Gimbel commands attention as she advances methodically through probing episodes of yearning and mystery. The second, Six Miniatures on Poems by David Cameron, illuminates material by the Scottish poet, each setting distilling into evocative musical form his verses. “Evening” and “For Winter” exude affection for the coldest of seasons, “Conjuring” heartfelt longing, and “Gifts” a lyrical quality in its arcing viola figures.
The Jaeger work on the Duo Cavatine release, Constable’s Clouds, is also unaccompanied, though this one’s performed by cellist Noémie Raymond-Friset (the piece appears on Reid’s Conjuring as Constable and the Spirit of the Clouds in an arrangement for viola and electronic soundtrack). As mentioned, it’s one of three works performed by the Montreal-based Duo Cavatine, which couples her with pianist Michel-Alexandre Broekaert. Nuages arrives eleven years after they met as students at the University of Montréal and saw their shared passion for chamber music blossom into a formal collaboration. The two named their partnership after the slow movement from Poulenc’s Sonata for cello and piano, FP 143, one of their favourite pieces, the first they learned together, and the opening work on the recording. Jaeger’s also credited as producer of the release, which was recorded at CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto during August 2019 and joins CellOpéra, a recording featuring adaptations of opera arias for cello and piano, in their nascent discography.
First sketched in 1940 and finally completed eight years later, Poulenc’s sonata might seem conservative when compared to the seismically disruptive material Stravinsky and Schoenberg created earlier, but there’s no denying its charm. The melodic allure of the work’s opening allegro is strong, and the duo illuminates the French composer’s elegant material with an impassioned treatment. The impish middle section is beguiling, though much the same could be said about the movement’s romantic sections too. There’s also no denying the poetic beauty of the dignified “Cavatine,” which receives an eloquent reading. Effervescent by comparison is the nimble “Ballabile”; the “Finale,” on the other hand, concludes the work on a high with dramatic flourishes, enticing melodic gestures, and virtuosic interplay.
Inspired by the series of Cloud Studies paintings produced by John Constable, Constable’s Clouds provides an effective stop-gap between the multi-movement works. Much as drifting clouds present limitless variations of shape and texture, so too does the musical content in the Jaeger work. Raymond-Friset, who delivered the premiere of the work in Toronto, gives it a powerful run-through marked by extreme contrasts in dynamics, technique, and expression—moving between bowing and plucking, the performance is lyrical and delicate one moment, biting and aggressive the next. Schnittke departs from conventional sonata form in opening his sonata—premiered in 1979 by pianist Vasily Lobanov and the work’s dedicatee, cellist Natalia Gutman—with a sombre “Largo” and following it with a furiously executed central movement the duo calls “cataclysmic and vengeful” but which could also be deemed seething and macabre. Without pause, a second “Largo” takes over, this longer meditation the more elegiac, mournful, and haunting of the two. The technical challenges posed by the work are considerable—the central movement especially—but the musical partners acquit themselves admirably. Nuages is so satisfying a listen, it makes one eager to hear CellOpéra to see what Raymond-Friset and Broekaert have done with material by Wagner, Puccini, Bellini, Gershwin, and others.