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Paul MORAVEC (b. 1957)
Tempest Fantasy* (2002): I. Ariel [4:16]; II. Prospero [5:35]; III. Caliban [7:05]; IV. Sweet Airs [4:57]; V. Fantasia [7:31]
Mood Swings (1999) [15:52]
B.A.S.S. Variations (1999) [11:32]
Scherzo (2002) [3:52]
Trio Solisti (Maria Bachmann (violin); Alexis Pia Gerlach (cello); Jon Klibonoff (piano)); David Krakauer (clarinet)*
rec. January 2002, October 2003. Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, USA

What does Paul Moravec have in common with Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Giancarlo Menotti, Ned Rorem and John Corigliano? He now belongs to that select club of Pulitzer-Prize-winning composers, courtesy of his utterly delightful Tempest Fantasy.
To play this and a selection of his other works we have Trio Solisti, who premiered both Tempest Fantasy and Mood Swings and commissioned Scherzo. They perform regularly in the States and are resident at Adelphi College, New York. The clarinet virtuoso David Krakauer, who I first encountered on another American Classic (see review), also combines teaching in the U.S. with performances around the world.
Manhattan-born Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy, which he describes in his notes as ’a musical meditation on characters, moods and lines from my favorite Shakespeare play’, is not clichéd faerie music but has a muscularity and thrust that may surprise you. For instance, in the first movement the sprite Ariel is characterised by animated pizzicato writing, the scurrying clarinet figures wittily evoking the antics of Prospero’s mischievous little spy.
Prospero, the second in this ‘flight of musical fancy’, is altogether more regal, with long instrumental lines and a firm, measured piano beneath. There is a hint of magic, too, in the stranger sonorities but by and large this is a thoroughly engaging and memorable portrait of Shakespeare’s famous sorcerer.
The third movement, Caliban, is much darker, exploiting the pungent lower registers of the clarinet. Moravec imbues this strange ‘mooncalf’ with a rare potency and power through music of great vigour and variety. Sweet Airs is a musical response to Caliban’s eloquent speech in Act III, scene ii – ‘Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not’. It is music full of poise and sophistication, quite at odds with our image of this unruly creature, this ‘freckled whelp’.
It is difficult to place Moravec’s musical style; suffice to say that it has a pleasing originality, notably in Fantasia. A bit of a potpourri, this, it brims with lovely energetic melodies. The playing and recording are exemplary. I’ve had cause to grumble about the unnaturally close balance on some Naxos discs but the engineers have got this one absolutely right. From the quieter, more reflective moments to the whirling finale of Fantasia the instruments have a natural perspective that greatly enhances one’s enjoyment of this music.
Moravec explains that Mood Swings is an attempt ‘audibly [to] present the workings of the central nervous system’. A curious conceit, perhaps, and I wondered how Moravec would sustain it for quarter of an hour. I needn’t have worried; the piece has a coherence – it is essentially a theme and variations – that helps to hold one’s interest from beginning to end; not to mention the gentle, more elegiac moments in between the stormier ones. I was particularly impressed by Jon Klibonoff’s sensitive piano playing, which helps to underline and sustain the changing moods so admirably.
The B.A.S.S. Variations, like earlier musical acronyms D.S.C.H. and B.A.C.H., are based on the German notation (in this case B flat – A – E flat – E flat). Composed at the Bass Garden Studios of the American Academy in Rome, the piece is dedicated to Sid and Mercedes Bass. It’s not a flamboyant work; indeed, at the outset it has a concentration, an inwardness, that is most seductive. Alexis Pia Gerlach’s secure, lyrical cello playing is worth commending, even in the more animated episodes. But what a hauntingly beautiful finale, a dying whisper almost.
How very different from the jazzy, improvisatory Scherzo, which Moravec describes as an ‘encore-type piece’. Klibonoff really lets his hair down and Maria Bachmann’s violin playing, full of vim and vigour, is just delicious.
I’m tempted to add this disc to my shortlist of the year’s best so far. Not only is the music captivating, it also has a consistent energy and focus that is very impressive. Couple this with a lovely, natural recording and playing of real stature and you have a very special disc indeed.

Dan Morgan

Naxos American Classics page


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