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Charles WUORINEN (b. 1938)
String Sextet (1989) [19:08]
Second String Quartet (1979) [20:17]
Divertimento (1982) [11:35]
Piano Quintet (1994) [24:45]
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (Sextet), TASHI (Divertimento), The Group for Contemporary Music (Quartet, Quintet)
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 2 October 1991 (Sextet), 17-18 June 1996 (Quintet), and Recital Hall, State University of New York, 22 April 1991 (Quartet), 19 November 2000 (Divertimento). DDD
NAXOS 8.559288 [75:45]

 

For many years, Charles Wuorinen had a longstanding reputation as an academic modernist, a “composer of unregenerate complexity” (Lebrecht). Highly prolific, he was the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1970, and he has received numerous other accolades. He was one of the founders of the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, whose longevity in a world where such organisations and ensembles come and go like mushrooms is evidenced in its contribution to part of this recording. Wuorinen has long had a well-earned reputation for mastery of unconventional instrumental groupings, but the four chamber works on this disc are all scored for conventional forces – two string quartets, a string sextet and a piano quintet. These recordings first appeared on the Koch International Classics label, so fanatical contemporary music collectors will need to check their ‘W’ section before rushing out to buy.

The String Sextet has the conventional double-trio violin, viola, cello setting in Wuorinen’s piece, and the performing techniques are also conventional enough. The piece begins with an enigmatic opening which crystallises into a kind of serial semi-atonality, simultaneously alienating and tugging at our sense of logic by exploring well-defined phrases, moments of unisono, dense contrapuntality and driving rhythm. The overall effect is of a piece for string quartet which just became too big and hairy to remain a string quartet, with all of the 18th and 19th century associations it holds. It’s not easy, but neither is it entirely impenetrable. The difficulty is only in the complexity of the music, which reveals the composer’s mind running at 78 rpm while we poor mortals are trying to keep up at 33⅓.

The following work, the Second String Quartet has an unfortunate collapsing of the stereo soundstage and a somewhat boxier balance. This is not something one would necessarily notice, but coming hard on the heals of the Sextet it’s hard to miss. The composer writes of this piece, “The work is in four connected movements but each of these has its own slow and fast music, and its own area of activity and repose; the whole work, therefore, is really a single large movement.” The moments of repose can be very beautiful, and there is certainly a potent mix of contrasts, with rhythmic and tonal violence and angularity living alongside the more static, suspended moments where pizzicato, tremolo and flautando techniques are given a chance to weave shapes out of silence. There are some beautiful moments, like the opening of the final fourth movement, and some fascinating passages which seem to rock and tick like clocks – an embodiment of time passing which, alas, invariably succumbs to the momento mori of modernist scrubbing.

The Divertimento for string quartet has, as its name would suggest, lighter textures and a relatively open sense of cadence and flow. There are some impressive pizzicati, and some brief Webernesque moments of musical argument and discourse. Tempo relationships, expanding pitch relationships and some punchy rhythmic passagework drive the polyphonic writing to which we are now becoming accustomed.

The welcome addition of new colours in the Piano Quintet concludes this meaty programme. There is clever technical content aplenty, but more usefully the listener’s ear is drawn in by birdsong-like flourishes from the piano, and relief from the intensity of line and counterpoint which Wuorinen favours in his string writing. The beauty in the more restful second movement is present once again, with the piano adding atmosphere in some moments which to my ear would serve well as film music. The piano provides quite a groove in the final movement, and, interestingly, it is once again a useful little experiment to play the opening chord of the Sextet immediately after the final chord of the Quintet – there’s the kernel of a new piece straight away!    

I find myself sitting on the fence a little with this music. I can admire Wuorinen’s technical virtuosity, but as I get older I increasingly find less to be more – and most of these pieces are emphatically more and more and more. Think of the pieces to which you refer most as pinnacles of musical achievement or of sheer gorgeousness, and you will probably find that they are based on the simplest of ideas. If however your follicles are stirred by involved busyness rather than classical austerity then this will probably very much be your bag. The performances are certainly characterised by admirable commitment and technical prowess, though as previously mentioned the recordings are not invariably wonderful, although they are always good enough. Wuorinen’s is certainly an uncompromisingly individual voice, and if you are up for a challenge then you will certainly find plenty to spar with on this disc.

Dominy Clements

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