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John BIGGS (born 1932)

Variations on a Theme of Shostakovich (1978)a
Stephen DEMBSKI (born 1949)

Of Mere Being (1981)b
Barbara JAZWINSKI (born 1950)

Jean-Claude WOLFF (born 1946)

Symphony No.4 (1985)
Betty Oberacker (piano)a; Sulie Girardi (mezzo-soprano)b
Polish Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra of Krakow/Szymon Kawalla
Recorded: Philharmonic Hall, Krakow, April, May and July 1991

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Some time ago, I reviewed recordings of two short miniatures for clarinet trio by John Biggs (Medieval Dance Suite on CRYSTAL CD942 and Renaissance Bouquet on CRYSTAL CD943). Here is another piece of his, but a much more serious and substantial one. Variations on a Theme of Shostakovich, composed in 1978 for the present soloist, is also a deeply felt tribute to the Russian composer who apparently meant much to John Biggs. The variations, on the opening viola theme of the second movement of Shostakovich’s First String Quartet, often inhabit the Russian master’s sound-world with its mix of lyricism, bitter-sweet irony and rhythmic energy, though it is American to the core. A quite substantial, earnest and honest piece of music that deserves to be better known.

The French-born Jean-Claude Wolff studied with several distinguished teachers, such as Henri Dutilleux, Michel Philippot, Jean-Pierre Guézec and Ivo Malec, and attended composition classes of Franco Donatoni in Sienna. In spite of some obvious influences from these composers, Wolff manages to remain his own man in his music. The Second Symphony for violin and orchestra (available on VMM 3001) is a beautifully lyrical work bearing the imprint of Dutilleux; but the Symphony No.4 of 1985, scored for a small orchestra of 35 players, is a more complex, more stringent work in a rather more austere idiom and less predictable than the Second Symphony. The music draws on dynamic and expressive extremes alternating almost static cluster-like sections and energetic, percussive episodes; but never extravagantly so, for expression remains Wolff’s main concern. This is a sizeable and substantial work that repays repeated hearings.

Stephen Dembski’s name and music are new to me. His orchestral song Of Mere Being, composed in 1981 and revised in 1983, is actually based on an earlier setting of Wallace Stevens’ last poem written in 1975. Stevens’ short poem may sound rather obscure but its vivid verbal imagery suggests a similarly vivid musical setting which Dembski successfully achieves, albeit in a more advanced, though still quite accessible idiom.

Barbara Jazwinski, another name new to me, studied with Davidovsky, Ligeti and Chowning. We are not told when Stryga was composed. This piece, though, was originally conceived as a ballet and later developed into a purely orchestral score although the various moods of the music betray their origins drawn from various ancient Polish legends about Stryga which deal with the extinction of prehistoric tribes and, on a more general level, with the stoical acceptance of one’s fate "without questioning the world’s existing order". The work, however, may be experienced as an abstract piece of colourful, evocative and superbly crafted music.

That good music communicates, whatever its stylistic boundaries, is amply demonstrated by the works in this release, which is one of the finest of this series which I have ever heard. Fine works in excellent performances and fine recordings. What else can we ask for?

Hubert Culot

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