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Beth ANDERSON (b.1950)
March Swale (2000) [5.26]
Pennyroyal Swale (1985) [9.41]
New Mexico Swale (1995) [10.23]
The Angel (1988) [13.52]
January Swale (1996) [5.45]
Rosemary Swale (1986) [7.45]
Piano Concerto (1997) [13.30]
Rubio String Quartet (all except New Mexico where they appear minus Dirk Van de Velde, first violin); Andrew Bolotowsky (fl/picc), David Rozenblatt (percussion); Gary M Schneider (conductor) (New Mexico); Jessica Narsten (sop) (Angel); Joseph Kubera (piano), Darren Campbell (string bass), David Rozenblatt (percussion); Gary M Schneider (conductor) (Concerto). rec. 20-21 Nov 2003, Studio C, Mirror Image, NYC. DDD NEW WORLD RECORDS 80610-2 [56.22]

Beth Anderson’s initial musical training was conventional serialism, but enthusiasm for the music of John Cage and the influence of Robert Ashley and Terry Riley led her to explore different paths. In the late 1970s she was experimenting with conceptualism and with text sounds. But in the 1980s she started writing music which was essentially tonal, often of great beauty and generally for chamber music forces.

To a certain extent, Anderson’s music belies its apparent simplicity as her preferred method of construction is collage; her preferred form is a swale, a term that she invented herself. Swale is a term for a meadow or marsh where many plants grow together side by side; for Anderson this extends to the musical form where diverse musical ideas and styles can live side by side.

So in these pieces, different themes and styles occur without any linear development, in fact there is no apparent development at all. This apparent simplicity is easy to dismiss; at any point in the piece the music is relatively conventional and conservative, but the Anderson’s intentions are to challenge the listener via the varied sequences of musical types. These sequences are rarely abrupt, Anderson creates quite a smooth, rather coherent whole.

The first two Swales on the disc ’March Swale’ and ‘Pennyroyal Swale’ both came across to me with strong echoes of English string music (the Trevor Duncan’s Little Suite which gave rise to the theme tune for Dr. Finlay’s Casebook sprang to mind) alongside more American echoes like Copland. These first two are written for just string quartet and are here neatly and crisply played by the Rubio String Quartet, which shoulders the bulk of the work on the disc.

‘New Mexico Swale’ uses a trio drawn from the Rubio String Quartet alongside flute and percussion. Here the textures are spare with evocative flute melodies and haunting percussion effects.

These first three Swales are followed by a vocal piece, a setting for soprano and ensemble of texts by Hans Christian Andersen and Anthony Calabrese. The piece opens with Andersen’s story of an angel of God coming down from heaven each time a child dies. This ends with a lovely wordless cantilena whose extreme tessitura rather taxes the otherwise excellent Jessica Marsten. The second half of the piece sets the Calabrese poem, a child-like piece on the same themes as the Andersen. Here Anderson’s orchestration is lovely, but I am afraid that I found the poem’s subject matter rather sentimental and the words often bathetic.

Of the following two Swales, ‘January Swale’ is notable for the rather tougher feeling of its opening. And the disc finishes with Anderson’s piano concerto which is written for piano and six instruments (string quartet, bass and percussion). At 13 minutes long it is longer than any of the Swales on the disc, but quite short for a concerto. An attractive work, in character and construction it is very similar to Anderson’s other work on this disc. It is more than a concertante piece, the piano first amongst equals, rather than the 19th century idea of a concerto as dialogue or argument.

Anderson is well served by her performers. The Rubio String Quartet, some of whose players appear on every track, play with admirably crisp rhythms and all the players respond to Anderson’s melodic felicity.

How you respond to Anderson’s music will depend on how receptive you are to Anderson’s different way of constructing pieces. I must confess that, for me, her collage effects did not always work and that I found it difficult to get beyond the apparent simplicity of her material. But this is essential listening for anyone interested in the many different classical musics which have sprung up in the last 50 years.

Robert Hugill

See also review by Rob Barnett

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