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American Music for Percussion - Volume 1 Joan TOWER (b. 1938) DNA (2003) [9:56] Felicia SANDLER (b. 1961) Pulling Radishes (2007) [7:22] Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962) Splendid Wood (2006) [11:33] Robert Xavier RODRIGUEZ (b. 1946)
El dia de los Muertos (2006) [12:53] Gunther SCHULLER (b. 1925) Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards (2005) [25:29]
New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble/Frank Epstein and Gunther
rec. 24 January 2004 (Tower), 4 April 2008 (Sandler), 26 April 2007
(Higdon), 4 May 2007 (Rodriguez), 9 December 2005 (Schuller); Jordan
Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, USA
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559683 [67:12]
This is the first in what promises to be an intriguing
series. By their nature collections of music for percussion
can be somewhat relentless. Careful programming is more important
than ever if one is not to succumb to boredom or listening fatigue.
The pedigree of the performers helps too, and it soon becomes
clear that the students of the New England Conservatory – America’s
oldest independent music school – are supremely talented. Their
collective efforts are caught in a very spacious, natural acoustic.
Indeed, minutes into the first track and I was already looking
forward to the next instalment – Naxos 8.559684 (see my colleague's
Inevitably, a piece entitled DNA is going to throw up
all sorts of preconceptions about its structure, yet Joan Tower’s
piece is remarkably concise and straightforward. An NEC commission,
this percussive quintet certainly does combine and recombine
its musical strands in a way that mimics life’s building blocks.
From a whisper-quiet start through to its muscular rhythms and
mighty plosions this is a tightly conceived and compelling work.
Not since Kalevi Aho’s Luosto symphony have I encountered
drumming of such insistence and impact. A very impressive start
to this disc, and superbly recorded to boot.
But when it comes to work titles PullingRadishes
– taken from a nineteenth-century Japanese poem – is as gnomic
as it gets. Yet what we hear in Felicia Sandler’s piece is more
suggestive of Africa than the Far East. Even so, amidst all
the drumming are passages of rarefied, celestial loveliness.
True, there’s a compositional rigour here – Sandler explains
her method in the liner-notes – but what really matters is that
the work has an abiding ease and aural interest that makes it
pass much too quickly.
Ditto Jennifer Higdon’s Splendid Wood which, as its title
implies, is a celebration of all those woody sounds. Not surprisingly,
the marimba takes centre-stage, its distinctive timbres very
well caught in a close but still airy recording. As one who
admires her orchestral blue cathedral – on a terrific
Telarc disc from Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony – I’d
say Splendid Wood is even more assured in its effects
and focus. The playing is beyond reproach, Frank Epstein and
his students immersed in the music right to its emphatic finish.
Can it get any better? Yes, with Robert Rodriguez’El dia
de los Muertos, based on the traditional Aztec-Mexican ceremony
where the dead are invited to celebrate with the living. Another
NEC commission, it dispenses with drums – apart from timps –
and concentrates on pitched percussion instead. From its deep,
slumbering start it’s clear the piece has an orchestral weight
and thrust, the two vibraphones, glockenspiel, chimes, crotales,
gongs and marimbas plus the Janáček-like figures on the
timps producing the gaudiest, most thrilling sounds imaginable.
This is astonishing; indeed, it’s the most original percussion
writing I’ve heard in ages. All I can say is, prepare to be
At 25 minutes veteran composer and conductor Gunther Schuller’s
Grand Concerto is by far the longest work here. In four
movements it’s as much about exploring textures as it is about
varying pulses; the range of this piece is remarkably wide,
the splash of piano and shiver of gongs adding to Schuller’s
eclectic – and sometimes trenchant – sound-world. I didn’t warm
to the concerto at first – it doesn’t have the instant, atavistic
appeal of El dia de los Muertos – but repeated hearings
have persuaded me of its virtues, not least the sustained level
of inspiration that keeps one engrossed to the very end. Once
again, the quality of playing and recording is exceptional.
Even if percussion pieces aren’t your normal fare I’d urge you
to try this disc. There’s so much here to delight the receptive
ear and seduce the most reluctant one; indeed, if Volume 2 is
half as good as this it’s going to be an indispensable series.
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