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' period!
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 singing.
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.
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