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Douglas Bruce JOHNSON (b.1949)
Territory of The Heart
Songs of Time, of Love, of Wonder

Il terzodecimo canto for string quartet
… at evening, in the shadow of the volcano, they are dancing …

Two Essays for String Quartet
Elizabeth Anker (contralto)
Leslie Amper (piano)
Gregory Vitale (violin)
Christine Vitale (violin)
Jennifer Stirling (viola)
Emmanuel Feldman (cello)
Anthony de Bedts (piano)
No recording information (CD published 2004). DDD
ZIMBEL RECORDS ZR105 [56’11"]

 

On the evidence of this CD, Douglas Bruce Johnson’s music should be better known than it is, being far more strongly characterful than much contemporary music from the USA. Johnson says: "Rooted in European traditions, my music still sounds American. ... I do not adhere to any prevailing school of compositional style, though I freely acknowledge influences from four 20th century ‘greats’: Berg, Bartók, Britten and Copland". On this CD, only the song-cycle sounds American (very) to my mind; the other works strongly suggest his European antecedents. Of course, the picture is much more complicated than ‘European versus American’ would suggest; for example, Copland studied in Paris with Boulanger and others.

He has written for a variety of forces including chamber choir (including two Spanish song-cycles), saxophone quartet, cello and electronic cello (‘Angels’, a score for three dancers and video) and an opera is in the process of composition. Apart from the works on this CD, nothing else seems to have been recorded.

The song-cycle "Songs of Time, of Love, of Wonder" consists of settings of three poems by May Sarton (1912-1995), one by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and a Latvian folk song. May Sarton, apparently neglected by the American literary establishment, commands a strong readership in the USA. The settings, syllabic against pianistically interesting accompaniments, are extremely suitable to the imagery of the poems. Elizabeth Anker’s strong, unfruity contralto is an ideal instrument, her diction being some of the clearest I have heard on record, making the absence of texts no obstacle to understanding. Johnson’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s extraordinarily rhapsodic poem "The Love a Life can show Below" (words at http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/emilydickinson/10625 ) is entirely appropriate as is that of the Daina, an example of the verse form genre of Latvian folk songs.

Johnson’s piano work "...at evening, in the shadow of the volcano, they are dancing..." was premiered by pianist Anthony De Bedts in recital at the Schubertsaal in the Konzerthaus, Vienna. In his short notes (augmented on his website) Johnson "invites the listener to set the imagination free and to construct a narrative — each one can have their own version of the "story" that the piece seems to tell." The story progresses from a fierce opening through a series of episodes, full of pianistic incident and developing naturally from each other, to a niente conclusion. The concluding twilight harmonies reminded me of Ligeti or Bartók’s creatures of the night. This formidable work is a fine addition to the repertoire for virtuoso pianists and is brilliantly performed here by its dedicatee.

The pieces for string quartet share a common intensity and strength of gesture. Johnson’s realisation of Dante’s "Il terzodecimo canto", written as a memorial to his father, is a deeply serious piece that would repay repeated listening. The stimulating liner notes are augmented by a detailed correspondence between the poem and the music at http://www.trincoll.edu/~djohnso1/programnotes.html. Finally, the splendid quartet of string players give a fine account of two ‘seasonal’ essays composed in the Veneto in 1993 (echoes of Vivaldi), in the first some very bleak sounds conjuring up the wintry Italian countryside.

This fine disc provides a welcome introduction to the music of a lively-minded composer and is thoroughly recommended.

Roger Blackburn

 



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