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Charles WUORINEN (b. 1938)
Tashi (1975) [30:57]
Percussion Quartet (1994) [18:25]
Fortune (1979) [18:23]
The Group for Contemporary Music (Tashi, Fortune)
New Jersey Percussion Ensemble (Percussion Quartet)
rec. The Recital Hall, State University of New York, Purchase, 13-14 May 1993 (Tashi); 17 February 1993 (Fortune); Theatre C, State University of New York at Purchase, 3 June 1996 (Percussion Quartet)
NAXOS 8.559321 [67:44]
Experience Classicsonline

Charles Wuorinen continues the tradition of twelve-tone and other modernist composing techniques. Yet the cover photo for this release presents an approachable, Santa-like figure cradling a cat in his arms. Yes, it’s true that the works on this disc are comparatively user-friendly among the artistic progeny of Schoenberg. However, if you look closely, the composer appears to have a smirk. He’s going to make us work for our musical experience, and relishes the thought of our struggle. Look closer. Lepton, the composer’s cat, just may be smirking too.
Tashi forms the bulk of this recording. It takes its name from the contemporary music ensemble for which it (and Fortune) was written, and whose cellist Fred Sherry is part of the Group for Contemporary Music line-up. The structure of the piece is three “movements,” with the center movement being separated from the outer ones by two “interludes.” Throughout the work, the composer’s skill in expressing rhythmic immediacy, as well as the passionate intensity with which the composer seems to have something vitally interesting and important to say, even if it’s unclear just what that is, keep the listener’s ear attentive. I must note Wuorinen’s skill in writing for clarinet so as to integrate it into the overall sound-world of the piece, which other composers don’t always find easy to accomplish.
The notes say that Wuorinen “seems especially in his element when writing for percussion instruments,” and the Percussion Quartet bears this out. Here we see the composer’s affinity to the sound-world of percussion groupings found in traditional Asian music, as well as the American minimalists who found inspiration from them. In narrative development of the music, in the timbral distinctness of each of the instruments, and in their integration into a musical whole, Wuorinen seems to have written a chamber symphony for percussion orchestra, which the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble clearly love playing.
Fortune draws on the same timbres as Tashi, but begins in a slow, pensive, attempt to keep the lid on a sonic pot that threatens to bubble over. Energy accumulates into stuttering forward motion towards the end of the first section “Before”. “After” seems to be working its way toward a cry that is never fully expressed. The work was commissioned for the Bonn Beethovenfest of 1980. The notes attempts to draw parallels between bits of various works by Beethoven and effects in Fortune, but it’s too far of a stretch for me to see the connection.
Considering that the Group for Contemporary Music was founded by Wuorinen, it is fitting that they are performing two of the three works here. Hayes Biggs’s notes for this release provide helpful overviews of the works, but don’t do quite enough to situate the newcomer to the broader story of Wuorinen’s life and work.
Naxos appears to be devoting considerable attention to Wuorinen’s music, having already released two other volumes of his chamber music (8.559264 and 8.559288 - see review). I look forward to getting them, even as I admit they are not likely to constitute everyday listening for me.
Brian Burtt

see also review by Glyn Pursglove



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