Charles WUORINEN (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 [1:12:39]
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.
Mark Sealey
Summary. A timely and extremely well-executed collection of one earlier and three recent compositions from American Charles Wuorinen; three are world première recordings. All are expertly performed. See Full Review