John CAROLLO (b.1954)
Starry Night, for strings (2008) [8:06]
Anguish in Every Household, for orchestra [7:34]
*Clarinet Quartet no.1 A Worded Grey Enigma [33:17]
Moravian Sax in the Afternoon, for saxophone quartet [4:35]
+Transcendence in the Age of War (concert band version) [13:18]
Nothing Shall Come of This, for strings [4:17]
Ales Janecek (clarinet)
*Lucie Kaucká (piano)
*Vit Muzik (violin)
*Marian Pavlik (cello)
Brno Saxophone Quartet
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra/Petr Vronský, +Jan Kucera
Olomouc, Czech Republic, July 2010. DDD
NAVONA RECORDS NV 5844 [71:07]

This Italian-born American composer has made one brief appearance in these pages before now - his Metamorphosis no.3 for solo violin featured recently on a Beauport Classics anthology reviewed here. Two previous CDs have been devoted to Carollo's music, the last one in 2009 also on Navona (NV 5817) - which also contained the original version for two pianos of Transcendence in the Age of War.

As a perusal of the track-listing reveals, this is a multifarious disc, but these works are by no means odds and ends: at the very least they are connected by excellence. Curiously, given the outlandish titles, Carollo says in the booklet that "I like my music to speak for itself and have resisted titles and descriptors."

The well-stocked CD opens with Starry Night, an altogether different kind of night music to Mozart's. The score is subtitled "After van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhône, 1888", but the work, written for string ensemble, is a painting of the dark's power over humanity, with its various mysteries, secrets and dangers. For all that, Starry Night is more frenetic and shadowy than gloomy or sinister.

The next work, the evocatively titled Anguish in Every Household, is a transcription of the second movement of Carollo's Fourth Piano Suite for three pianos. In his notes Carollo does not say much about it, other than that it attempts nothing less than "to capture human suffering that seems to be a constant in relationships." Though written for larger forces, it is in some ways similar to Starry Night: slower-moving, but certainly dark-hued, with many compelling passages of mystery and angst, enhanced by the imaginative use of percussion idiophones.

A Worded Grey Enigma is scored for clarinet, piano, viola and cello. A Worded Grey is an anagram of Edward Gorey, an American illustrator and writer who published under anagrams of his own names, and to whom the Quartet is dedicated: in Carollo's words, "a tribute to a modern genius who will be known as a great American master." Carollo has over 1500 Gorey collectibles on permanent display at the University of Hawaii. The Quartet itself is a fine work, basically atonal but jaunty - almost dance-like in the last movement - and witty, and at over half an hour about as long as all the other works put together. The ad hoc quartet - which includes Vit Muzik, Navona's resident music producer in the Czech Republic, on violin - performs well, issuing a musical memorandum to clarinettists looking for new chamber repertoire.

Moravian Sax in the Afternoon is for four saxophones - soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. Carollo describes this contrapuntal piece as being after one of his favourite composers, J.S. Bach. It is a sprightly, attractive work, performed ably enough by the Brno Saxophone Quartet, although they do not pay a great deal of attention to Carollo's dynamic markings.

As mentioned above, Transcendence in the Age of War also exists as a work for two pianos. This version for strings-free concert band is considerably extended – 13:18 as against 5:39. It took Carollo from 2004 to 2010 to complete this particular version, but what a marvellously rip-roaring, disconcerting work it is, something of a Charles Ives meets Kurt Weill in its raucous sounds, superbly timed crescendos and brilliant orchestration.

The disc closes serenely with Nothing Shall Come of This, for small string ensemble. The work is poignant not just musically but by dint of its very existence - Carollo writes that it "attempts to capture the human condition we label as "sadness", when creations that excite the creator are left to idle among a collection of neglected works." He points out, politically but justifiably, with words that will resonate among composers of art music in the 21st century especially, that:

"Performers do not readily seek out new works unless they are paid well and artists [i.e. composers] are expected to bring forth their creations on their own, with no financial backing and no means to support it."

Thankfully, Navona Records have rescued these superb works from total obscurity, giving at least those who are prepared to look hard enough - for example, by regularly reading the review pages of MusicWeb International! - the opportunity to discover new music that often has every right to stand alongside the great works of past centuries, and to reward, mentally if not financially, those who have put so much creative effort into it.

Sound quality is generally good, as it usually is in Olomouc, although the strings do suffer a little from a certain lack of definition. In Starry Night there is a sudden increase in volume at 6:19 that sounds suspiciously like it was enhanced in the studio, but otherwise production is pretty good. The Moravian Philharmonic are in capable form under Petr Vronský, with Jan Kučera taking over capably for Transcendence.

The disc case is the usual thing from Navona - made of card, with the most basic details printed onto it, whilst the booklet proper has been digitised and put on the CD-ROM section of the disc - in other words, a computer would be handy. By way of slight annoyance, performers' names are listed only in minuscule writing underneath the track titles, and who the orchestra are is left to references in the booklet. CD-ROM extras include two short videos of the Moravian Philharmonic in performance, a few 'backstage' photos, as well as ringtones and Starry Night wallpaper for those who like that sort of thing. The complete scores to all the works on the disc have been thoughtfully included, although a magnifying glass will be required to read the two which are in full score.

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New music that often has every right to stand alongside the great works of past centuries and to reward those who have put so much creative effort into it.