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Review: Bente Illevold Album "Alone" (Norwegian: "Alene")

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ID:	8734The COVID crisis was something we'd like not repeat, but many of us have found some positive outcomes. One of those outcomes is having more time to practice, time that would have been otherwise occupied in pre-pandemic times. Bente Illevold used the time to create another very positive outcome, which is this album of unaccompanied music (i.e. "alone").

In case you are ready to stop reading, give me a minute! Some might ask, "A whole album of unaccompanied euphonium? How can that be interesting?" I understand any who have such skepticism, but this album IS engaging throughout! The variety of music is excellent, which helps. Perhaps the biggest factor is that within all these pieces, old and modern, Bente's musicality comes shining through. During the whole album I never found myself wishing for more instruments or colors.

In May I will be playing at a regional ITEC in Iowa. My underlying theme will be a tribute to the late Henry Charles Smith, with whom I studied whenever I could. He was the one player I most wanted to study with after I left college. Whether on trombone, euphonium, or as a conductor his musicality always shone through. THAT is what I hear on "Alone" from Bente, and that is what will hold your interest.

Here is the closing statement from Bente's liner notes:
We have made an honest and credible record. Alone is the result of the need to be creative in a troubled time. A performer and a producer. Two people in four sessions through eight very different musical works.
The first set of tracks is the Bach Suite No. 2 in D minor for Solo Cello. In my eyes the Bach unaccompanied cello suites are a bit dangerous to perform. Yes, they are difficult to play, but plenty of euphoniumists today have ample technique and agility for the task. The larger problem is the fact that wind players have to take time out to breathe (cellists have to breathe, of course, but they have the luxury of breathing while notes are coming out). I have heard a great many unsuccessful attempts to bring this music to life (in my opinion), even by some fine brass players. My own suggestion has been to add rubato to make the breaths sound like they belong there, as opposed to chopping off a note and jumping back in after a quick breath. Bente plays this suite as expertly and caringly as anyone I have heard! Suite #2 is one I have studied quite a bit, and her performance here employs ideas that had not occurred to me. She has been quite strategic in her interpretative choices, and the music benefits from that planning. Frankly, I did not expect my reaction when I saw the track list, but this may be my favorite set of tracks! In any case, if I had a student looking at any of the cello suites, I would point to this recording as a guide to making music amidst the challenges.

I heard a couple of "bends" (bending the pitch of a note in progress) in the Bach, which caught me off guard. Some musicologists believe Bach should be performed in a relatively straightforward manner. My first set of recordings (on LP) of the Bach Cello Suites was performed by cellist/conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who is regarded as a Bach authority. But to my 20th-Century ears the performance was intolerably dry. Certainly as wind players, that is not the approach we want to take. (I later found the Pablo Casals recording - much better!) So Bente may have been working for modern ears. The quote below from the lines notes seems to suggest that.
What do we truly know about what Bach thought when he wrote this music? What expressions does each performer choose to call an authentic reproduction or a period performance?
Is it possible to bring the present into our interpretation? For me, it is impossible to attempt to present this music frozen in time. For me, it is the music - the instrument and me there and then - in a given space, in a given time - in a present state.
But Bach is not the only historic composer whose solo music is presented here. There are enjoyable renditions of Telemann's 12 Fantasies (for Flute) arranged by Alan Raph, followed by Paganini's famous Caprice No. 24 transcribed by Bente Illevold. Each of these presents unique challenges, which are handled expertly. Again in these it is clear that Bente is not trying to emulate flute or violin, but instead presents them as viable euphonium pieces (for advanced artists). Here is a quote from the notes that gives more perspective from her viewpoint:
Again, my central belief is that transcriptions open new spaces for interpretation and expression rather than reproducing the past or mimicking things that already exist. For what joy and art is created by restraining the freedom and boundless nature of our imagination?
The album is nicely balanced by four composers from modern days. The first is Keith Elliott Robson. His "Dance Suite for Solo Euphonium" came about after a conversation he had with Bente Illevold. The suite is very listenable and should be within the abilities of most good players. It is similarly within the grasp of most audiences. I enjoyed this particular piece very much, and it is now on my radar for future work! It was also fun to hear because it reminds me of the Brian Israel Dance Suite I played in 1980 (recording is here - see if you agree). Along with much of the rest of this album, Bente shows her comfort in anything from slow, dreamy pieces to fast, energetic pieces. The first movement, "Tarantella," has the overall feel you would expect from the title, and I like the way he has the soloist presenting that dance in ranges from the 4th-valve register up to fairly high register. Keeping a similar "feel" in the stuffy 4th-valve range and in the upper range where one must have pretty strong chops is a nice challenge. Personally, I prefer pieces like that because I don't tend to get "chop lock" from staying forever in one register. Next is the "Valse Melancolique," covering a similar range. There is a nice variety of patterns, and a good little challenge with the ending going up fairly high to a sustained note. Next is a "Csardas" movement, with a slower start and a very quick section that sounds a bit "dance-hall like" to my ears. Great fun and played here with joyful aplomb! The suite closes with "Tango." It has the syncopated-type rhythms expected, but also has sections that harken back to the feel of the "Csardas" movement to my ears. It calls for double-tonguing at the end. Overall a nice variety of movements and some fine playing.

The next piece is Andrea Hobson's "Inspired by Blue" and I'll use the composer's own words hear to describe the idea:
Inspired by Blue was written for Bente Illevold in 2020. The piece is loosely based on the blues scale and the rondo form. The piece’s primary theme is “blue” and describes different shades of this color. The work's introduction is a sadly deep blue, a color which also returns near the end. This is followed by a rhythmically playful section that depicts a light blue color - in the same way that blue eyes can sparkle. A syncopated melody is a recurring element throughout the work and features a unique section of music designed to sound improvisatory.
It has a very unique sound, which fits the above description, and it is a fine addition to the repertoire available. It offers enough motion and variety to fit well into a recital. Some good interval facility is required (which is a strength Bente has in her pocket); otherwise the technique and range requirements should not take a good player by surprise.

This is followed by Bente's own composition, "Arv." Her words are below from the liner notes. There is a great variety of moods and some simple multi-phonics. This one goes was down in the range and has some daunting intervals jumps that would require woodshedding for me and many others. The upper-range requirements are in a range that has come to be required in current works, but the soloist needs to have very solid control in all ranges.
This is my first work for euphonium, written in April 2021. It is inspired by my upbringing in the village of Rendalen and the nature that surrounds my childhood home. This wild and untouched wilderness is breathtakingly beautiful! The folk music from Rendalen and surrounding Østerdalen is largely composed in minor keys. This was the very first music I heard “live” as a child. I took inspiration from this tonal language as I wrote “Arv”.
This composition is not preplanned and processed, I strove to create this music intuitively to capture a moment of my life. The various sections and associated fractures symbolize a child's wandering imagination with constant digressions.
I love the closing piece's title, Marcus Paus's "Notturno (Lockdown Lullaby)." We have all been through it (and may have more to go). It is a smooth, pretty piece as the title suggests. Although it was written for Bente, any artist should be able to make it their own because of its ample room for personal expression. She plays it with great sensitivity, and it does sooth the soul to listen. I like the closing words from the composer's liner notes:
The piece is written for Bente Illevold, and is a lyrical work devoted to both her and the euphonium's fantastic scope and register of expression.
"Alone" is an outstanding euphonium album and I recommend it highly. On the whole album Bente Illevold shows a fine, rich euphonium sound and displays excellent control and agility. Combined with her inherent musicality, the result is excellent!

(There were a couple times where Bente sounded at the edge of her control, mostly just some rough endings on notes. They were minor and could easily go unnoticed. It is probably too minor to mention and certainly did not hamper my enjoyment of the album, but I'm trying to present all I heard.)

I also have to compliment the recording engineer, who chose different techniques for different pieces. The Bach, for example, has the long echo one might expect in a cathedral or a large concert space. For the more modern works, the sound is "closer" and "tighter," which is more what we are used to hearing. This was a nice collaboration between artist and engineer.

The album is available to purchase at this site (at 3 different levels of audio quality!):
(Note: that website displays oddly for me. But just click the "Shop" link at the top. The subsequent page is clear.)

Here are two audio samples from the album. I chose the beginning of the Bach Suite's Prelude movement, and then combined two short clips from "Inspired by Blue" to give an idea of the range of musical styles and acoustic treatments in the album:

Bach Prelude

Inspired by Blue

The complete program booklet is available here:

I found some of the pieces online if you want to try them!

Bach Cello Suites (my favorite edition, Baerenreiter Verlag)

Telemann Fantasies (Alan Raph transcription)

Paganini Caprice 24 (Illevold)

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Updated 12-10-2021 at 05:58 PM by davewerden

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