(b. 1938) Chamber Music Scherzo (2007) [10:58] *
First String Quartet (1971) [22:31] **
Viola Variations (2008) [13:59] ***
Second Piano Quintet (2008) [25:10] ****
Peter Serkin (piano) *,****; Lois Martin (viola) **,***; Brentano String Quartet (Mark Steinberg (violin), Serena Canin (violin), Misha Amory (viola), Nine Lee (cello)) ****; Curtis Macomber (violin) **; Jesse Mills (violin) **; Fred Sherry (cello) **
rec. Theater C SUNY (State University of New York) Purchase, New York 19 May 2004 **
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York 29 October 2009 ***
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York 18 September 2009 ****
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York 19 September 2009 *
NAXOS 8.559694 [72:39]
Naxos continues to wave the flag for contemporary American music
in its 'American Classics' series with a superb selection of
music by the living American composer, Charles Wuorinen. Born
in 1938 he is perhaps as well known for his writings on music
(Simple Composition (ISBN-10: 0938856065 ISBN-13: 978-0938856061)
is a classic) as for his compositions themselves. Here are four
of them from almost 40 years of his career played with great
sensitivity and perception by Peter Serkin, Lois Martin and
an augmented Brentano String Quartet.
Wuorinen's output is distinguished by being both prolific and
varied as well as consistently good. His music is characterised
by uncompromisingly modernist atonality, almost severe structural
rigour and a complexity in his use of rhythm. These combine
to make his music generally very approachable; perhaps not least
because his voice is so distinct.
The Scherzo for piano from 2007 is expertly played by
Peter Serkin in a close, intense performance, yet one in which
the music is given room not only to 'breath', but also to expand
its chest and flex its muscles. The result: we are persuaded
of the energy which flows through and out of all of Wuorinen's
music. And - thanks to Serkin's evenness of approach - the purpose
of that energy. In this performance Serkin leads the music where
it's meant to go. It's the shortest piece on this CD but one
which - typically - condenses a wealth of musical ideas. Serkin
conveys them to us with just the right amount of intensity.
Yet doesn't forget that the scherzo is essentially a
lighter movement, allied to the dance; he fuses these qualities
with the virtuosity (at times quite remarkable) which was so
important to the composer.
The First String Quartet dates from 1971 and is the only
work on this Naxos CD previously recorded (in 2006, on Music
& Arts Programs Of America (4707) with the Fine Arts String
Quartet). In three short movements it, too, is heated and concentrated
- almost to the point of sultriness and fragmentation. The central,
slow, movement with crotchet = 60 (all Wuorinen's tempo markings
appear here) is twice as long as the outer two. Yet the members
of the Group for Contemporary Music labour no points, nor delay
the momentum of the piece. Their sound is immediate. Miking
was close and the essence of the string sounds has taken precedence
over a more generalised 'impression'. That's good; it adds to
our appreciation of Wuorinen's musical ideas. At the same time,
it must introduce difficulties in performance… how much are
the players working in concert; to what extent are they conveying
the music's impact through separation? The balance is this case
is ideal. Our overall response is to the music's urgency; it's
an urgency which arises out of the innate sound made by the
contributing instruments, in addition to any thematic imperative.
It's the sound of the viola, too, that drives another virtuoso
piece, the Viola Variations from 2008, played here by
Lois Martin, who commissioned it. Although Wuorinen seems to
be 'studying' the registers, ranges, articulations and textures
of which the viola is capable, after the lengthy piece is over,
you are left with a feeling of having explored melodic, decidedly
12-tone, work, rather than exploration. This is due in no small
part to Martin's sensitive playing.
By the time you get to the Second Piano Quintet also
written in 2008, Wuorinen's twin emphases on drama and precision
are evident. Again, structure (the alternation of both fast
and slow and long and short movements) is important. Startlingly,
the fast third movement is 'resumed' after the conclusion of
the fourth. But this is neither trickery, nor spurious experiment.
It's a thematic turn of events which adds to the sense of energy
that's so usual and effective in Wuorinen's work. But never
in ways which suggest that the composer is 'reaching'. He's
always in control. And here, again, the players are fully in
touch with why and how the music works as it does.
All in all, a most satisfying CD. The playing - both in terms
of technique and interpretation - is convincing, gently persuasive
and yet reserved to the degree that it needs to be in order
to avoid out of place advocacy. The recording is top notch;
and the booklet that walks through the works is insightful and
informative. One test of a successful CD of new music is that
it makes you want to explore other works by the same composer.
This is just such a CD.
from previous months Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the
discs reviewed. details We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to
which you refer.