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William BOLCOM (b.1938)
Capriccio (1988) [15:03]1
Cello Suite No.1 in C minor (1995) [16:44]
Décalage (1961-2) [7:44]1
Dark Music (1970) [9:22]2
Cello Sonata (1989) [18:30]1
Norman  Fischer (cello); Jeanne Kierman (piano)1; Andrea Moore (timpani)2
rec. Duncan Recital Hall, Shepard School of Music, Rice University, Houston, Texas, 15-17 May, 10 September, 28 November 2006.
NAXOS 8.559348 [67:22] 
Experience Classicsonline

Bolcom is not, thank goodness, an easy composer to pin down, stylistically speaking. And that is a good reason for always approaching a recording/performance of his work with eagerness, in anticipation of a few surprises and unexpected pleasures. It’s not just that he has – naturally enough – developed and changed over the years as a composer, but also that there isn’t a single trajectory to that development, any clear beginning or (at least tentative) ‘ending’; changes of direction and idiom occur between works - and are sometimes later reversed - and, at times, even within individual works.

Something of Bolcom’s exhilarating (at least I find it so) diversity is illustrated on this survey (billed as his ‘Complete Works for Cello’) of his writing for cello, part of the engaging ongoing series of Naxos discs devoted to his music.

Capriccio is in four movements. The first – allegro con spirito – is said by Bolcom himself to have affinities with Milhaud, which seems fair enough; the second – molto adagio espressivo – is a beautiful movement, some three and a half minutes in length, an elegiac reflection on pleasures lost; Bolcom describes the third movement as "rather-Brahmsian": it is full of beguiling melodies and an ambiguous sad charm; how very different the final movement is! This, the longest movement of this delightful piece, is entitled – in full – ‘Gingando (Brazilian Tango Tempo), ‘Tombeau de Ernesto Nazareth’. It’s a quite ravishing piece; ‘gingando’, I am told by Portuguese-speaking friends, implies a rather sexy kind of hip shaking on the dance floor; what one friend described as "joyful, sensuous waddling!" If that’s right, then this movement of Bolcom’s Capriccio seems to capture just that kind of joy and playful sensuality. Pizzicato passages for the cello are particularly delightful. I feel sure that Ernesto Nazareth would have valued this tribute. Taken whole, Capriccio is a work which perfectly illustrates Bolcom’s creative eclecticism.

Capriccio was premiered in 1988. More than twenty-five years earlier, Bolcom had been trying out a very different idiom. The single movement of Décalage shows a Bolcom responding to – and skilfully borrowing – some of the devices of then contemporary European music: Boulez is the name Bolcom mentions in his notes to this CD. But for all the apparent rigidities of the compositional methods involved - Bolcom himself now seems a little vague as to what exactly they were! - for all the brusqueness of much in the phrasing, there are tonal passages and a sense of instrumental dialogue that some of Bolcom’s models wouldn’t have allowed themselves. This is not, though, much more than an oddity of relatively little lasting interest. For once Bolcom doesn’t really seem to have found one of his adopted manners particularly fruitful.

Dark Music is not perhaps a major work either, but it is a striking one. It explores and articulates a mood of quiet despair; mostly played pianissimo, the unexpected instrumental combination of cello and timpani produces some very unusual and haunting textures, with microtones and glissandos often to the fore. It has an emotional substance – even if that emotion is a narrow and rather specialised one - Bolcom himself talks of it in terms of "emotional anomie and dissociation" – which gives it a dramatic, disturbing power absent from Décalage. Is there anything else by Bolcom quite like this?

Alongside Capriccio, the two most substantial works here are the Cello Sonata and the Cello Suite No.1; does Bolcom have more such works in mind? The Sonata pays more obvious homage to the ‘classical’ tradition than any of the other pieces gathered here, in its three movements (allegro-adagio-allegro) and some of its melodic and harmonic language. In the opening allegro there is, at times, a slight air of the over-cultivated, the excessively polite, that is perhaps ironic – a gentle, affectionate mockery of the Schubert-Brahms tradition out of which the Sonata ultimately grows or at least of its later derivatives; the central andante, though, is free of any suspicion of the ironic, built as it is of both a charming theme of serene gravity in E-major and some tense and quasi-tragic music. This is a rich, emotionally complex movement which, while it doesn’t - at least I don’t think so - explicitly imitate any ‘romantic’ models, finds a thoroughly twentieth-century way of tackling some of the same experiences and ideas. The closing movement is a relatively brief rondo, hectically passionate but perhaps not quite, in this performance at any rate, on a par with its two predecessors. Even so, this Sonata is a substantial, valuable and rewarding piece.

The Suite for solo cello is not, perhaps, quite so convincing, but is well worth hearing. Again Bolcom’s stylistic diversity is to the fore. The music began as incidental music for a 1995 production of Arthur Miller’s tragedy Broken Glass. The Bachian echoes and allusions in movements such as the ‘Alla sarabanda’ which closes the work and the brief ‘Badinerie’ which is at its centre, are perhaps no more than we should expect from Bolcom. As a whole the suite is perhaps too homogenous – too consistently dark in mood and low in register – to be entirely satisfactory. Given the comparison with Bark which the form – and some of the musical allusions – imply, any comparison is likely to leave one feeling that this suite is too short on, too far from, dance rhythms. But it has a genuine, if narrow, power.

Bolcom is never less than a composer of high competence and intelligence. At his best he is much more than that and, some at least, of the work on this disc shows him at something like his best. Given that, and given that both performances - Norman Fischer’s work is superb throughout - and recorded sound are of a high standard, admirers of Bolcom will surely want to snap up this disc.

Glyn Pursglove


See also review by Dominy Clements


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