Lewis Nielson is an American composer who studied
in London as well as in the USA, and is currently based at the
Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. In his notes for the booklet,
he states that the music on this disc “gives a reasonable
account of my general compositional interests”. Rather than
adopting a particular style, he is “much more concerned
with the more abstract elements of fluid development of musical
material”. Indeed, it is quite hard to detect specific influences
in this music. Charles Ives might perhaps be one but this is not
to suggest that there is an overt American flavour here. Nielson
has apparently received support from the Delius Foundation and
perhaps this is the kind of music Delius might have written if
he had been born a century later. There could even be a distant
kinship with his near namesake, Carl from Denmark. A lack of clear
stylistic anchors leads to a very different experience from Nielson’s
music by comparison with another contemporary US-based composer,
Leonardo Balada (who is now receiving his due on Naxos).
The main work here is the two movement Violin Concerto which was
written in 1989 for Thomas Joiner. It was revised in 1999 for
the present performer, Russian-born Levon Ambartsumian, whom Nielson
describes as “one of the most gifted musicians I expect
ever to meet”. The first movement is rhapsodic and, after
an extended opening melody lays down motifs for the second movement,
to which it is linked by a cadenza (the principal section of which
was revised). At the close of the work there is a return to the
opening theme. The overall effect is atmospheric with a predominance
of slow tempi and few opportunities for virtuosity. Ambartsumian
plays the work with feeling and consistently beautiful intonation.
The other two works on the disc are perhaps more
striking. Four movements for violin and harpsichord was dedicated
to the present performers and makes for interesting listening.
Each movement is concise, lasting between two and four minutes,
but a lot of material is contained within them. The composer relates
each movement to the work of a particular artist: the first, “Exercise”
a bucolic landscape after the manner of Watteau; the second, “Lament”
informed by Goya’s May the Second; the third “Dialogue”
related to the ambiguity of Dali and the finale “Folly”
inspired by Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”, as
depicted by a waltz-like frenzy. This is one of the more interesting
21st century works that I have yet heard.
The final piece, Anagram is subtitled ‘Fantasia
No. 2’ and was written for Levon Ambartsumian. It lasts
for almost as long as the Violin Concerto. Both contrasts and
demands on the violinist here seem greater than in the Concerto.
Throughout there is a clear feeling of progression towards a goal
(presumably the resolution of the anagram). Enigmatically, the
composer tells us only that the title “derives in part from
the musical realization of the appropriate letters of his [Ambartsumian’s]
and my name”, leaving me puzzled but perhaps you will be
able to work it out!
The first two works were recorded in Moscow;
Anagram in Georgia (USA). Sound quality is more than acceptable
throughout with the violin well-balanced with both orchestras
and the harpsichord. I am not aware that there is competition
but all the performances can be regarded as definitive. Listeners
interested in contemporary violin music should certainly give
this disc a hearing.
Patrick C Waller