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Ellen Taaffe ZWILICH (b. 1939)
Violin Concertoa (1998) [26'03]
Rituals for Five Percussionists and Orchestrab (2002) [25'59]
aPamela Frank (violin);
bNEXUS/IRIS Chamber Orchestra
aSaarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Stern.
aLive recording in the Kongresshalle, Stuttgart, Germany on October 18th, 1998, bGermantown Performing Arts Centre, Tennessee, USA on March 7th, 2004 Studio recording). DDD

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich writes in a manner that is at once communicative yet that does not make any obvious concessions to the ear. There is an integrity to the works on this disc - particularly the Violin Concerto - that is most impressive.

The Violin Concerto was premiered by the present soloist, Pamela Frank. The New York Times referred to this concerto as 'A love song to the violin', and it is easy to see what was meant. The yearning, lyric side to the instrument is to the fore although this is not to underplay the clear virtuosic element. Zwilich was a professional violinist in the American Symphony Orchestra for several years. Frank has no problems whatsoever with the technical challenges and it is amazing to think this is taken down live. Yet it is in the long-breathed melodies that she triumphs. There is an underlying intensity to the whole concerto that is very evident certainly the live setting would have helped. The warmth of the writing is also memorable and it positively glows just before the cadenza.

The slow movement is a rumination on Bach's great Chaconne for solo violin and is based on the opening notes thereof. Frank plays the quasi-improvised high melody of the opening with great sweetness of tone, while Michael Stern paces the movement carefully towards its climax. Its slow inevitability is reminiscent on one level of Birtwistle's monumental ritualisms but with a more immediately approachable harmonic backbone.

In contrast to this lyricism, the finale has a definite rugged beginning, making us wait for the playfulness that comes later. Frank's playing of the spikier writing is excellent, while the long-breathed sections are unhurried and expressive. The end is ruminative yet joyous. A major violin concerto that is now accessible to all at this super-budget price. Bravo to all concerned.

The work Rituals is disappointing after the Violin Concerto, yet it stands in its own right. The lyricism that seems to lie at the heart of Zwilich underpins all, even the arresting opening chords. There is indeed a heavily ritualistic feel to the first movement ('Invocation'). The second movement ('Ambulation') is more playful and very woodwind-dominated. It is only here that the solo percussion comes into its own. There appears to be a Bernstein debt at times (around 2'30ff), coupled with Coplandesque unisons.

The best movement is the third ('Remembrances'), all desolation (great cor anglais solo), an experience guaranteed to bring the listener spell-bound into Zwilich's world. The finale begins hesitantly. The hard percussion sounds impel the rhythms into motion. There are glittering moments (around 2'35). This is very exciting and there is no doubt of the superb performance. The talent of the group NEXUS shines through.

Recommended, especially for the Violin Concerto.

Colin Clarke


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