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
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.