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Steven R. GERBER (b.1948)
Diverse Chamber Works
Gershwiniana (1999) [5:46]
Three Folksong Transformations (2001) [3:33]
Three Pieces for Two Violins (1997) [7:52]
Notturno for violin, cello and piano (1996) [5:25]
Elegy on the Name ‘Dmitri Shostakovich’ (1991) [4:41]
Three Songs Without Words for solo violin (1986) [4:12]
Fantasy for solo violin (1967) [5:36]
Duo for violin and cello (1969) [10:09]
Piano Trio (1968) [17:27]
Kurt Nikkanen (violin and viola); Cho-Liang Lin (violin); Cyrus Beroukhim (violin); Brinton Smith (cello); Sara Davis Buechner (piano)
rec. KAS Music and Sound, Astoria New York, 7-10 October 2002
NAXOS 8.559618 [64:39] 
Experience Classicsonline


Naxos
’s ever-burgeoning “American Classics” series has now reached the work of Steven R. Gerber with this disc of diverse chamber works dating from 1967 up to 2001. Not having heard any of his music previously this proved to be a good way to sample his work within this genre. Two things struck me immediately; firstly, whilst the instruments called for are the most traditional of all chamber instruments – strings and piano, the sounds that Gerber conjures from them are far from standard. Yet it would be quite wrong to imply from that that he ‘distorts’ these instruments – there is no Cage-like “prepared piano” effects here. Rather the choice of register, instrumental and timbral combinations, and musical layering results in a very unique sound world. Secondly, Gerber is indeed fortunate to have this disc performed by such an elite group of players. The technical demands he makes of them could have resulted in performances of far less assurance and panache in the hands of lesser players. Here all are virtuosi in their own right as well as sounding thoroughly committed to the sound-world Gerber creates. 

In his own informative and interesting liner notes Gerber points out that the programme of this CD moves from later works first to earliest works last. I’m not convinced that this was a good or wise choice. Personally I find it more interesting to hear a musical personality evolve – OK, a little judicious track programming sorts that out but most of us pop a disc in and just want to hit play! As presented here the two most substantial works that end the CD are for me the least individual and least convincing. The external musical influences are the least digested - some Messiaen-inspired birdsong leaps out of the Piano Trio about halfway through the first movement only to be overwhelmed by some thunderously modernistic passages. As he admits himself these are clearly young man’s music – a real sense of gauntlets being cast down. There is a dogged determination here NOT to write any phrase or harmony that could possibly be mistaken for being diatonic. By the time of the later works (represented earlier on this disc!) Gerber seems much more at ease with the idea of writing music of an essentially lyrical melodic nature. But there are traits here that Gerber continued to develop. He has a penchant for writing string parts cruelly high – I can’t stress strongly enough how well these passages are handled by the players. In the Blues-Etude which forms the final movement of Gershwiniana there is a manic cat and mouse chase by the 3 violins which must be devilish to perform and littered with the possibility of going horribly horribly wrong. But here the players toss it off with exactly the kind of ovation-inducing insouciance that Gerber must have envisaged. Oddly, it was this same movement - which I really enjoyed - that raised one little query in my mind. Clearly Gerber understands the instruments he writes for well. Just occasionally though I couldn’t help thinking that the music was being used to serve a technique or effect rather than the other way round. Comparing the Three Folksong Transformations of 2001 for piano trio with the previously mentioned 1968 Piano Trio makes it clear just how far Gerber has developed. I enjoyed the condensed aphorisms of the later piece – no musical gesture is wasted - quite the opposite of the prolix po-faced student work. In fact each of these later works is a masterful study in concision. 

Given the variety and brevity of much of the music here everyone will have their own personal favourites. For me the two groups of “arrangements” that open the disc gave the greatest pleasure together with the haunting Elegy on the name Dmitri Shostakovich. Interestingly Gerber notes that this latter is his most-played work and I can understand why. In its brief four and a half minutes it encompasses a powerfully wide range of musical emotion but here I feel the compositional technique is serving the music. Kurt Nikkanen proves himself to be as adept on the viola as he is elsewhere on this disc on violin. Because of the diversity of the music on offer it is hard for a listener new to Gerber’s music such as myself to know for sure where the true musical spirit of the composer lies. Elsewhere on this site discs of his orchestral works have been well received and I would be interested to hear how he handles larger scale forms and ensembles. 

The 2002 recording – I’m guessing licensed to Naxos from another company – is up close and personal but as has been made clear none of the playing is in any way compromised by that kind of intimate attention. Also, there is enough air around the instruments to avoid the sound becoming claustrophobic. Only in the unrelenting early works does any aural fatigue kick in but this is more down to the compositions themselves. This is a CD I enjoyed in parts, superbly performed throughout but I need to hear more of this composer’s work to learn to recognise the musician behind the technician. 

Diverse modern chamber works splendidly performed. 

Nick Barnard



 

 
 


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