BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
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 Schuller
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
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 Pulling Radishes – 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 amazed.
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
So much here to delight the receptive ear … astonishing … the most original
percussion writing I’ve heard in ages.