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Five Preludes; Tweet Suite; String Quartet; Theme and Variations; The Past Keeps Changing

Ariel String Quartet (William Barbini, Kineko Okumura, Igor Veligan, Julie Hochman)
Laura Decher (soprano)
Peter Josheff (clarinet)
Vicki Ehrlich (cello)
D’Arcy Reynolds (piano)
Recorded at Old Saint Hilary’s Chuch, Tiburon, California, 2000
DHARMA GATE MUSIC 66449 35132 [52.09]
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D’arcy Reynolds is a California-based pianist and composer who trained at Mills College and whose composition teachers included Terry Riley. Her style, though, seems to owe little to her teacher and there is scarcely a whiff of Californian minimalism in the music recorded here. Reynolds writes in a rather tough, chromatic style, albeit with a strong touch of lyricism. Her instrumental writing feels linear and her music for string quartet displays a good feel for the sense of four inter-twining lines.

For me, the sound-world that her music (particularly the instrumental writing) evoked was British music in the mid-20th century. That sense of strength and melodic interest combined, with a style which seems to border on atonality but remains just inside the world of chromatic tonality.

This CD brings together a group of chamber works and song cycles written between 1990 and 2000. The ‘Five Preludes for Viola and Piano’ (1995) are short evocative movements that use the haunting sound of the viola to a good extent. The composer herself accompanies the fine violist Igor Veligan (born in the Ukraine, he is now based in Sacramento).

‘Tweet Suite’ (1990) is a song cycle for soprano and piano. The work belies its rather comic title as it is based on Pablo Neruda’s poems from the ‘Art of Birds’, poems about South American birds. Reynolds sets them in translations by Jack Schmitt. Reading through the printed texts I found them highly evocative and appealing; I could well understand why Reynolds wanted to set them. Unfortunately I find her setting rather puzzling and a little unsatisfactory. There is something rather unsatisfyingly wordy about Reynolds’ word setting. For me, her vocal line never seems to match the feeling of the words. And with its odd stresses and stray, left-over syllables at the ends of phrases, it felt as if the words had been fitted to a pre-existing melody line. The piano accompaniment is profoundly satisfying, I wondered what the pieces would sound like as vocalises. Others will, inevitably disagree with my findings and the pieces receive committed performances from soprano Laura Decher and the composer. But in the end, as a composer I found Reynolds settings puzzling and as a listener I found them unsatisfactory.

Her String Quartet (1999) is altogether more satisfactory. She seems to eschew classical forms for more romantic structures; the first movement consists of two contrasting sections, the second is a waltz and the final movement a tango, variations on a theme by Ginastera. The Ariel String Quartet give a strong performance, though I did wonder if they were a little too closely recorded.

The ‘Theme and Variations’ (1993) for clarinet and piano arose out of improvisations between clarinettist Peter Josheff and the composer. The results are appealing and have a naturalness that music based on improvisation can have. It also has a welcome brevity eschewing the wandering inconclusiveness to which much improvisation is prone.

The final work on the disc is ‘The Past Keeps Changing’ (2000) a song cycle for soprano and string trio based on poems by Chana Bloch – poems which were originally published in 1992. Again, these are evocative poems, full of the poets concerns; but I encountered the same problems as I did in the earlier cycle. The first poem, ‘Thirteen’, opens with the lines ‘Nobody knows how serious it is to have such small breasts. No one knows what you pray for’. The poet, I think, intends a serious meditation on the concerns of a thirteen-year-old. The composer, in her notes, states that the song is humorous. I’m afraid I did not find it so, nor did it evoke for me the concerns of a thirteen-year-old girl. Much of the word setting in this cycle is conversational and the lyric interest lies with the string trio. This melodic interest is considerable, but does not seem to carry over into the vocal line. Laura Decher does a sterling job on this cycle and is well supported by the string trio. I only wish that the music had appealed to me more.

The pieces on this disc are well recorded and receive strong performances from all concerned. Anyone who wants to explore the music scene in Northern California should not hesitate to buy the record.

Robert Hugill


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