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Margaret BROUWER (b.1940)
Aurolucent Circles (2002)a [27:07]
Mandala (2001) [11:55]
Pulse (2003) [6:03]
Remembrances (1996) [15:00]
SIZZLE (2000) [4:58]
Evelyn Glennie (percussion)a
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, July 2004
NAXOS 8.559250 [65:05]

Margaret BROUWER (b.1940)

Lament (2002)a [19:04]
Light (2001)b [16:15]
Under the Summer Tree... (1999)c [17:57]
Skyriding (1992)d [12:32]
Demeter Prelude (1997)e [7:10]
Laura Frautschi (violin)a; Jean Kopperud (clarinet)a; Donald McGeen (bassoon)a; Dominic Donato (percussion)a; Sandra Simon (soprano)b; Jeannette Sorrell (harpsichord)b; Sean Gabriel (flute)b; Amital Vardi (clarinet)b; Gabriel Bolkosky (violin)bd; Ida Mercer (cello)bd; Scott Christian (percussion)b; Kathryn Brown (piano)c; Alice Kogan Weinreb (flute)d; Mitsuko Morikawa (piano)d; Cavani String Quartete
Recorded : Concordia College, Bronxville, New York, May 2003 (Lament); Kulas Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music, December 2001 (Light), December 1999 (Under the Summer Tree) and January 2002 (Demeter Prelude); and Gaertner Auditorium, Cleveland Museum of Art, June 2001 (Skyriding)
NEW WORLD 80606-2 [73:07]

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For many long years, concertos for percussion were a rarity; and, if asked, many would have answered: Milhaud. Now, thanks to young brilliant percussion players, such as Evelyn Glennie and Colin Currie, the repertoire has dramatically expanded, often with quite interesting pieces, although none have convinced me completely. A recent concerto for percussion and orchestra is Margaret Brouwer’s Aurolucent Circles composed for Evelyn Glennie and first performed by her with the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. It is a full-fledged concerto in three movements designed to explore the many possibilities of solo percussion with orchestra and to exploit the dedicatee’s virtuosity to the full. The first movement provides a mysterious introduction, and the whole work ends with a brilliant Toccata. The mysterious mood of the opening soon gives way to more contrasted episodes while the movement ends with a vehement percussion tattoo. The second movement, too, opens in an other-worldly atmosphere with spare orchestral sounds and rustling percussion suggesting vast empty spaces. The orchestra progressively joins in, but the soloist is quite often accompanied by one of the two concertinos, either a small group of two flutes, two harps, two percussion sections, solo strings and one trombone, or five woodwinds. The final movement is a perpetual motion bringing the work to its brilliant, virtuosic conclusion. There are not that many percussion concertos, although the repertoire is regularly enriched by new works commissioned by or simply written for some young percussion soloists. Brouwer’s Aurolucent Circles is a most welcome addition. Now, why ‘Aurolucent Circles’, you may ask. Allow me then to quote from the composer’s insert notes: "... the sparkling and lucent sounds of so many of the percussion instruments used ... the circling of the sound around the stage, brought to mind the aurora borealis ... So, ‘aurolucent’ combines the words aurora and lucent."

Mandala is in two parts, the first of which opens with a solo trombone intoning an old Dutch psalm tune (Psalm 91) drawn from Het Boek nevens de Gezangen bij de Hervormde Kerk van Nederland, on which the composer also drew in another work, Light (2001) for soprano and small ensemble (on New World 80606-2). One might think that a sand mandala made by Buddhist priests and an old Dutch psalm tune make strange bedfellows; but the whole thing works remarkably well thanks to Brouwer’s superb scoring, and ends up as a very rewarding piece.

Pulse: A 50th Anniversary Fanfare is a short, brilliant concert-opener composed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra for which Brouwer also composed – Pluto – A Sequel (yes, to Holst’s Planets). It is a colourful work that perfectly lives up to its title. So does SIZZLE, yet another short, fast-moving orchestral fanfare, again superbly scored. Both pieces are not unlike, say, John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, although the music is clearly Brouwer’s own.

Remembrances is a beautiful and moving elegy composed in memory of Robert Stewart. In many respects, it may be the most traditional work; but, as far as I am concerned, it is one of the finest here and the most deeply felt and moving. Various episodes, happy and sorrowful, meditative and angry are capped by an appeased coda of great beauty. This is certainly an intimate, personal work that deserves to be heard more often.

This Naxos disc also prompted me to review another disc of works by Margaret Brouwer that I had been unable to review so far. The New World disc offers some fairly recent chamber works; and, as such, is the perfect complement to the Naxos release. Each provides a fair survey of her recent output and of her personal sound-world.

Brouwer began composing Lament, scored for violin, clarinet, bassoon and percussion, some three weeks after September 11, 2001 in an attempt "to express in some way the numbness, anguish, bewilderment" caused by that terrifying event. The opening Prelude sets a mood of utter desolation, whereas the second movement Unfinished Song, beginning almost innocently, becomes rather more ominous before petering out. The central movement Lament is the weightiest and the most questing, its sorrowful chant being regularly assaulted by the percussion’s sharp, angry commentaries. The piece ends in an appeased, though still uneasy mood.

Light is a short work in three movements scored for soprano, harpsichord, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and percussion, setting a fragment by Hildegard von Bingen in the first movement and words by the physicist Richard Feynman in the third movement, the central one being a short instrumental fantasy on two old Dutch tunes, i.e. a song by Ockeghem and a psalm tune from Het Boek nevens de Gezangen bij de Hervormde Kerk van Nederland, from which she also quoted in the orchestral work Mandala. These sources are embedded in Brouwer’s sound-world to great effect. Musically, the third movement Atoms is a musical journey that begins in archaic mood and ends in present times.

Under the Summer Tree ... for piano began life as a one-movement piano sonata to which Brouwer soon added two more. Only after completing the work did she added titles, actually lines drawn from Thomas Hardy’s poem During Wind and Rain. The first movement is the most substantial and calls for considerable energy as well as musicality. The beautiful second movement has a dream-like quality and a feeling of improvisation that adds to its mysterious mood. The final movement provides a brilliant conclusion to what is a full-fledged piano sonata in all but name.

Skyriding, the earliest work in this selection of chamber works, is scored for flute/alto flute, violin, cello and piano. The flowing motion unfolding almost effortlessly in the course of the first movement is briefly interrupted by some abrupt interjections suggesting agitation beneath the seemingly calm surface. The second movement is a straightforward, beautiful song without words in total contrast with the concluding dance-like fantasy that rounds the work off.

Demeter Prelude, composed at about the same time as the orchestral piece Pluto – A Sequel (i.e. to Holst’s Planets), evokes Demeter’s chase for Persephone abducted by Hades. The music slows down in the central section and gives way to short recitatives before resuming its headlong journey abruptly cut short.

Both discs provide a fair survey of Brouwer’s recent music, which is clearly of its time and which uses modern techniques such as key clicks, knocks on the piano’s lid, words whispered by the orchestral players (as in the second part of Mandala), but always for expressive purposes or for instrumental colour, so that they never sound as mere fashionable gimmicks. The sound-world of Margaret Brouwer, incidentally no relation whatsoever to the Cuban guitarist, conductor and composer Leo Brouwer, is entirely her own, colourful, inventive and – most importantly – strongly expressive. All performances and recordings serve the music well.

Each disc provides an excellent introduction to Margaret Brouwer’s personal sound-world and music-making. It is now up to you to decide whether you prefer to make acquaintance through the orchestral music or the chamber music. Whichever way you choose, you will most likely want to hear more of it.

Hubert Culot


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