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Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Piano Trio (2003) [13:21]*
Voices (1993) [17:31]+
Impressions (2003) [26:50]#
Anne Akiko Meyers (violin)*; Alisa Weilerstein (cello)*; Adam Neiman (piano)*;
Nicholas Kitchen; Melissa Kleinbart (violins)+; Hsin-Yun Huang (viola)+; Wilhelmina Smith (cello)+; The Cypress String Quartet#
rec. Vilar Center for the Arts, Beaver Creek, Colorado, 15 July, 2003 (live première recording)*; Adrian Carr Studios, New York, February 1995 +; Skywalker Ranch, California, May 2003#. DDD
NAXOS 8.559298 [57:42]


This is an excellent disc of communicative contemporary music from a composer I want to know better.

Jennifer Higdon apparently enjoys quite a following in the US - enough to be able to earn her living by composing. I know that Telarc has released a couple of well-received discs featuring her orchestral music played by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Telarc 60620 and 60596). 

I had heard and enjoyed her lush and evocative piece Blue Cathedral on the second of those Telarc discs - coupled with Barber’s Symphony No.1, Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the album’s title track, Rainbow Body, by another young American composer, Christopher Theofanidis - but until this disc arrived in the post I had not heard any of Higdon’s chamber music. I think a couple of smaller American labels, such as Albany and Cedille, have recorded some of her chamber music before now, but it is this Naxos disc that has the longest reach, the most tempting price tag and the greatest potential to win new fans. 

Higdon’s piano trio is in two movements, and in each she experiments in evoking colour. Whether Higdon succeeds in stimulating your latent synaesthesia to have you hearing yellow or seeing red in the first and second movements respectively is nether here nor there. What is certain is that she evokes mood. The first movement, Pale Yellow is delicate and lyrical, beginning with a gentle wash of chords from the piano that slowly coax the strings to life. Anne Akiko Meyers’ violin tone has a winning sweetness and Adam Neiman caresses the keys of his piano. The second movement, Fiery Red, is an energetic, spiky scherzo. It can sound a bit relentless, but it is certainly fiery. Shades of Shostakovich here. 

The performance, recorded live at the piano trio’s première at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, has a feel of excitement and occasion. Unfortunately, the acoustic is shallow and reverberant, so that it sounds like the music is being played in the bathroom next door. As a result, the cello is often obscured, especially in the hectic Fiery Red, and you cannot hear the depth of tone you would expect. 

Voices, for string quartet, is the earliest of the works in the programme, predating its disc mates by a decade. Higdon explains in her liner notes that the three movements are intended to illustrate three images. The energetic first movement is entitled Blitz. There is strong flavour of Bartók here and quartet certainly colour Higdon’s writing as if it were Bartók’s. The second movement, Soft Enlacing, though of a piece with the first, is quite different. This is music of ambiguous beauty, and reminded me alternately of Debussy and Adams. The final movement, Grace, is the gentlest of the three. An interesting and evocative piece, well played and recorded. 

The final work on the disc is a traditional four movement string quartet, played here by the Cyprus String Quartet, who commissioned it. There is a songful Ravel-like quality to the first movement, which is followed by a second movement of real beauty. The pithy third movement, entitled To the Point, shares the sound world of Shostakovich’s first four string quartets, but with an American accent and veers briefly into Shaker Loops territory. The fourth movement, Noted Canvas, has echoes of Debussy. The recorded sound for this piece is fine. 

All of the music on this disc is engaging. My only complaint - other than the sonic one noted in relation to the piano trio - is the playing time of the disc. In fairness, 57:42 of music is not bad value for a bargain priced disc, but this music is so good that I wanted more. Higdon’s voice deserves to be heard and hearing it is a pleasure.

Tim Perry 

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