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Pascal ZAVARO (b. 1959)
Flashes for orchestra (1999) [11:37]
Three Studies for a Crucifixion for orchestra (2004) [18:35]
Metal Music for brass ensemble and percussion (2000) [6:14]
Fiberglass Music for two string quartets (2001) [14:52]
Orchestre National de France/Kurt Masur (Flashes); Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/John Nelson (Three Studies); Orchestre National de France/Gerard Schwarz (Metal Music); Quatuor Klimt, Elisabeth Glab (violin), Gastan Biron (violin), Emanuel Blanc (viola), Jean-Luc Bouree (cello) (Fiberglass Music)
rec. Radio France, Paris, Flashes: 11 September 2003, Theatre des Champs Elysees; Three Studies: 8 February 2004, Studio 104; Metal Music: 2 December 2000, Studio 104; Fiberglass Music: 20-22 December 2004, Studio 107
DENSITE 21 DE 003 [51:58] 


A new label to me, which appears to specialize in contemporary French compositions, and, at least in this recording, to be closely tied to the activities of Radio France. Based on this release, I will look forward to hearing more from them - but it appears that they do not cater to the faint-of-heart when it comes to modern music. 

Flashes consists of five short portraits, each of a city: Tokyo, Cairo, Paris, Warsaw, and New York City. According to the notes - which read as if written by the composer, though that is not indicated explicitly: "This is an homage to the mixing of architectural styles, the historical stratification, the promiscuity of different classes and ethnic groups, and the magnificent impurity that the contemporary metropolis presents." Tokyo begins with a glassy, on-edge string intro (daybreak?) before launching into a frenetic rush led by marimba and followed by brass heralds, ending in a Bolero-like climax. Cairo continues the energy, punctuated by downward-sliding chords that hint at motifs from Mahler's sixth symphony. A few interspersed sinuous clarinet figures lead a presumptive Arabic air. Paris is calmer and flute-heavy, though the agitation still remains far higher than anything that could be called impressionistic. Warsaw continues the emphasis on woodwind accents while pursuing a Ligeti-like ethereality, interrupted near the end by a crushing string ostinato. New York serves as the work's "Great Gate of Kiev" triumphant and cheerful brass and string writing carrying us through until the piccolo chirps "good-bye." One can draw connections from the music to its program, but they would not be at all apparent without guidance - this is best appreciated as abstract music. 

Three Studies for a Crucifixion was inspired by a triptych of paintings of the same name by Francis Bacon - a twentieth-century artist, though distantly related to the Enlightenment philosopher. This painting - which can be seen here - was a response to the horrors of Nazi Germany and World War II. Compared to the paintings, and to the previous work on this disc, Zavaro's music here is darkly quiet, though maintaining an anxious tension: strings that grumble in the bass and keen in high-pitched outbursts. The third movement 'Froid et pulse' features successive outbursts from percussion and brass before returning to its quieter rumblings.

While listening to Metal Music, two images came to my mind: skeletons dancing energetically in a midnight graveyard (the percussion) while a jazz band trumpets fanfares (the brass). Near the end of the piece everyone is exhausted, so the brass trails off slowly, elegiacally. It's chaotic, but in a way that is fun and infectious.

Fiberglass Music consists of two string quartets sending fragments of austere, mournful, world-forsaken melody back and forth. The final Presto con fuoco continues in the same spirit, only with intensely frenetic agitation. Though contemporary, the ghosts of Shostakovich and Bartok lurk in the shadows of this piece.

Zavaro achieves accessibility not through neo-classicism nor neo-romanticism. One will find no sonata forms nor catchy tunes here; rather, uncommon talent at using complex rhythms to perfect effect. He began his musical life as a 'marimba virtuoso', according to the notes, so a deep passion for rhythm and a fine sense of the physicality of sound are not altogether surprising.

A few words from the composer himself before closing this review: "Living in the shadow of skyscrapers, in crowds and ceaseless traffic, that's where I feel at home, within city walls. A world of standardized objects, synthetic materials and automatons where multiple forms of music are present everywhere, is the setting that nourishes music and its dramatic art." The music proves that these are meaningful, rather than idle words. Zavaro shows a passionate devotion to communicating with the listener, making this contemporary music worth hearing. 

Brian Burtt 

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