American Music for Percussion Volume 2
Elliott CARTER (b.1908)
Tintinnabulation (2008) [8:00]
Peter CHILD (b.1953)
Refrain (2000) [9:49]
Edward COHEN (1940-2002)
Acid Rain (1997) [9:04]
John HARBISON (b.1938)
Cortège (2008) [11:34]
Fred LERDAHL (b.1943)
*The First Voices (2007) [11:58]
New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble
*Kimberly Soby (soprano)
*Mary Kate Vom Lehn (mezzo)
*Thea Lobo (alto)
rec. Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston MA, 12 February 2009 [Carter];
12 April 2000 [Child]; 24 April 2008 [Cohen]; 5 May 2009 [Harbison]; 20 November
2008 [Lerdahl]. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559684 [50:26]
It is not every day that the publicity blurb for a CD opens with a quotation
from Jean-Jacques Rousseau ("Anger produces menacing sounds. But the
voice of tenderness is softer"), or any other philosopher for that matter.
For the same disc to also offer the chance to hear what nipple gongs sound
like, and more importantly music - let alone a work for percussion - written
by a composer at the age of 100, the curiosity rating is almost off the dial.
Yet this latest addition to the gargantuan 'American Classics' series from
Naxos offers just that, and more: five medium-sized, mainly 21st century works
by mature US composers for various combinations of often exotic percussion.
Elliott Carter's Tintinnabulation was commissioned by the New England
Conservatory and first performed in 2008. It consists of three main sections,
for unpitched wood, metal and finally 'skin', with each of the six percussionists
assigned one or more instruments - of which there is an amazing array - from
each grouping. The work is typical Carter, best described as an orgy of tone
colour, with few concessions to the unexpecting listener even in his 'late'
England-born Peter Child's Refrain is another NEC commission, again
for six percussionists, but this time with a considerably downsized arsenal,
mainly wood and metal. The meaning of the title is not clear from the music,
but this is a rhythmic, approachable piece with some inventive contrasts in
colour and dynamics especially.
Edward Cohen's Acid Rain introduces a pair of pianos with imagination,
enriching the texture of the two glockenspiels, vibraphones and chimes. The
overall effect of the piece is of drive and noise and excitement - not what
anyone would normally call "clangorous", but the Naxos blurb does
- as well as a fair amount of repetition, but without resort to lazy minimalism.
Back to six percussionists for John Harbison's three-movement Cortège,
and a third commission by the NEC. Written in memory of Harbison's friend,
the composer Donald Sur (1936-99), Cortège is another battery of exotic
sounds, one of which, the conch, is not even percussion. The piece is enigmatic
rather than melancholic or morbid, and has an improvised feel about it that
adds to rather than subtracts from the interest.
Finally, Fred Lerdahl's innovative work, The First Voices, for eight
percussionists and soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto, provides - possibly -
the justification for the trite opening quotation by Rousseau, whose long-winded
Essay on the Origins of Languages (not "Language",
as printed in Lerdahl's liner note) posited the co-evolution of music and
language. Yet another NEC commission, The First Voices is a striking
mixture of forceful percussive rhythms from Africa and contemporary American
The NEC Percussion Ensemble turn in fine individual performances under the
redoubtable Frank Epstein, as do the three female voices. Sound quality is
generally excellent, the only exceptions being a few mysterious, barely audible
clicks about halfway through Tintinnabulation, the older recording
of Cohen's work, which is a bit flatter, and the sudden appearance of background
hiss in the final movement of Cortège. The editing could have been
better: after fading to silence, the very ends of tracks contain a momentary
'flare-up' of volume indicating the imminent start of the next work.
Percussion sections often get a poor deal in CD booklets, but in this case
every instrument used for however short a time is listed in some detail, and
there is almost certainly something there for everyone to look up, from the
guiro, guica and rain stick, to the lion's roar, temple block and darbouka!
At 50 minutes, the programme timing is uncharacteristically ungenerous from
Naxos. The back inlay of the CD also has a very cluttered look about it: why
do Naxos insist on squeezing the engineers' and publishers' names on the back
- it is certainly not a legal obligation, and surely no one bases their purchasing
decisions on such data? The track-listing title inside the booklet is "American
Music for Percussion 1", an error that should have been obvious, given
the size of the font. But these are minor quibbles on the whole, and should
not detract from the variety and quality of the music.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
The curiosity rating is almost off the dial.