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Joan TOWER (b. 1938)
In Memory (2002)a [14:56]
Big Sky (2000)b [7:11]
Wild Purple (1998)c [7:18]
Holding a Daisy (1996)d [3:54]
Or Like Engine (1994)d [3:13]
Vast Antique Cubes (2000)e [2:58]
Throbbing Still (2000)e [7:38]
Island Prelude (1989)f [11:17]
Tokyo String Quartetaf; Chee-Yun (violin)b; André Emelianoff (cello)b; Joan Tower (piano)b; Paul Neubauer (viola)c; Ursula Oppens (piano)d; Melvin Chen (piano)e; Richard Woodhams (oboe)f
Recorded: American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, January 2004
NAXOS 8.559215 [58:26]

Tower’s second string quartet In Memory, originally planned as a tribute to a recently deceased friend, turned-out to be the composer’s reaction to the events of September 11, 2002 which happened about one month after she had started work on the piece. Thus, the music has a deeply-felt elegiac tone, at times disrupted by fits of anger and revolt. The whole piece, is essentially a tensely lyrical threnody cast in Tower’s mildly dissonant idiom, sometimes redolent of Bartók.

The slightly earlier piano trio Big Sky is a quite different proposition. This is Tower in her outdoor mood suggesting a big landscape, "a Montana-like sky and maybe a lone wild stallion roaming freely ..." (the composer’s words). The music alternates rapt, meditative episodes and more animated sections, in the form of a tone poem. This is "The Big Country" in chamber format although the music is not overtly programmatic.

Wild Purple is a free fantasy for solo viola, in which the composer exploits the various facets of the instrument’s tonal range, sometimes in a virtuosic manner.

The four piano pieces published collectively as No Longer Very Clear, written between 1994 and 2000, are all indirectly inspired by John Asbury’s eponymous poem. Each piece has a title drawn from lines of that poem. The music reflects moods and impressions suggested by the words. Thus, Or Like Engine (1994) is a nervous Toccata, and so is the fourth piece Throbbing Still (2000), whereas Holding a Daisy (1996) and Vast Antique Cubes (2000) are mostly more meditative in character.

Island Prelude for oboe and string quartet (although there exist versions for oboe and strings as well as for oboe and woodwinds) is a companion piece to Tower’s earlier orchestral work Island Rhythms (1985). The composer "tried for something with love and sensuousness" and, accordingly "thought of the setting as a tropical island somewhere in the Bahamas", although the Caribbean element is less prominent in the chamber work than in the orchestral piece.

Tower’s music is clearly of its time, closer to Bartók and Stravinsky than to Copland, and it is always colourful, well-crafted and immensely accessible. These excellent performances by a handful of fine musicians serve it well. I now hope that a forthcoming release in Naxos American Classics will showcase her orchestral music. For now we have this well-planned release offering an introduction to Joan Tower’s attractive music.

Hubert Culot



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