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Ellen Taaffe ZWILICH (b. 1939)
Violin Concerto (1998)a [26:03]
Rituals (2002)b [25:59]
Pamela Frank (violin)a; Nexusb; Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestraa; IRIS Chamber Orchestrab; Michael Stern
rec. (live) Kongresshalle, Saarbrücken, October 1998 (Violin Concerto) and Germantown Performing Arts Centre, Tennessee, USA, March 2004 (Rituals)
NAXOS 8.559268 [52:04]

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s superbly crafted and strongly communicative music has been reasonably well served, as far as commercial recordings are concerned. However some discs may no longer be readily available and this makes the present release all the more welcome. Zwilich’s present output includes four symphonies and a number of concertos, of which the Violin Concerto and Rituals are recent examples.

The Violin Concerto’s three movements are laid-out in the traditional fast-slow-fast pattern, of which the central one carries the emotional weight of the piece. The most striking feature of this impressive piece is the song-like quality of much of the writing for violin. This led one critic to describe the concerto as "a Love-song to the Violin"; not surprising as the violin is Zwilich’s instrument. The first movement opens with a bold, declamatory statement that sets the tone for much of the ensuing music and from which the violin takes its flight. The pace is sustained with unflagging energy. The slow movement is based on Bach’s Chaconne developed into a long, often impassioned song rising to a big climax before slowly receding into a final, dreamy conclusion. The final movement is full of energy and dance rhythms, but nevertheless ends in ethereal peace. Zwilich’s Violin Concerto is a magnificent piece of warmly lyrical music that compares most favourably with the concertos by Walton or Prokofiev. One may yet again wonder why a piece such as this is not heard more often.

Percussion is often associated with rituals of some sort, so no wonder Zwilich chose this title for her recent percussion concerto. It was written for Nexus, a crack percussion ensemble playing a huge array of instruments. The music exploits the full tonal range of the ensemble without any attempt at using the instruments in a "culturally authentic way" - as the composer puts it. The four contrasted movements explore different sorts of ritual: Invocation, Ambulation, Remembrances and Contests. Most of the time, the music perfectly lives up to what the movements’ titles may suggest. The third movement Remembrances is particularly impressive and contains by far the finest music of the whole piece. By comparison, the second movement Ambulation is less successful partly because the composer seemed unsure of the direction the music should take. The music here moves "from processional through march and dance to fantasy" and, as a result, lacks internal cohesion. On the other hand, the final movement Contests is a brilliant Toccata providing an appropriately uplifting conclusion. Heard after the beautiful Violin Concerto, Rituals is slightly disappointing, although it nevertheless is a most welcome addition to the not overabundant repertoire for percussion and orchestra.

These performances by the works’ dedicatees are as fine as one might wish, and the recorded sound is to match. One hardly notices that the Violin Concerto was recorded live. Those who have already heard and loved Zwilich’s music will know what to expect. Those who are new to it will find here the best introduction possible to her warmly expressive and communicative music.

Hubert Culot

see also reviews by John Phillips and Colin Clarke

 

 

 

 



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