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

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 review).

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 series.

Dan Morgan

So much here to delight the receptive ear … astonishing … the most original percussion writing I’ve heard in ages.