Gloria COATES (b.1938)
String Quartet No. 9 (2007) [25:45]
Sonata for Solo Violin (2000) [13:08]
Lyric Suite for Piano Trio, "Split the Lark and You’ll Find the Music" (1996) [19:58]
Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin); Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin); Morgan Goff (viola); Neil Heyde (cello)); Roderick Chadwick (piano)
rec. Saint Peter Art Centre, Cologne, June 2008 (Quartet; Sonata); Royal Academy of Music, London, March 2009 [Suite]. DDD
NAXOS 8.559666 [58:51]
This CD has previously been reviewed on MusicWeb International here. To their great credit, Naxos have already published all eight of Gloria Coates's previous string quartets, on two discs, reviewed here and here.
Previous reviewers have highlighted the challenges to the unsuspecting listener of Coates's music, and it is fair to say that it has not suddenly metamorphosed into anything like a diatonic idiom for this release. In other words, anyone looking for 'great tunes', 'easy listening' or 'dinner party music' should evacuate now!
But for those interested in powerful, original experimentation in music - not just sound - that, for all its initial outlandishness, still looks back to Beethoven, Bach and indeed beyond, the works of Gloria Coates are indispensable. As Kreutzer violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved says in his note on Coates's music: "Once the floodgates are open, its extraordinary beauty is irresistible."
Many will doubtless take a lot of convincing, and much time and concentration are required to fully appreciate the complexity, intensity and profundity of Coates's music. But this disc is perhaps one of the best places to start, with both the Sonata for Solo Violin and the Lyric Suite among Coates's most approachable chamber works.
The intrepid new listener should begin not with the String Quartet, but with the Sonata for Solo Violin, in which the presence of Johann Sebastian Bach, whom Coates has previously cited as her greatest influence, is readily discernible, particularly in the first and third movements. Despite a few unusual sound effects, this is attractive, lyrical writing.
The seven-movement Lyric Suite for piano trio is another fairly accessible work, at least as far as that can be said of Coates's music at all. There is not much here that, say, Charles Ives, or certainly Henry Cowell, would not recognise - right down to the idea of asking the pianist to play both the outside and inside of the piano!
There are other peculiar sound effects, including slightly out-of-tune strings giving both a 'warped LP' effect, and a kind of ghostly, out-of-synch echo feel to some of the movements. The piano often plays very simple tonic triads, and indeed the music is slow-paced and uncluttered, momentarily reminiscent of atmospheric minimalism for an arthouse film. Despite the continual dissonance, the overall effect is strikingly memorable and, yes, lyrical. The work's subtitle, 'Split the Lark - and You’ll Find the Music”, some may recognise as the title of a poem by Emily Dickinson, and each of the seven two- to four-minute sections is named after a phrase from the poem.
The String Quartet no.9, in its world première recording, is at another remove - more likely to recall Penderecki's string music than anything American. It is altogether more arcane, with further unusual instrumental effects, including tappings and rapid high-pitched pizzicati and tremolos, although the opening bars and at least some of the subsequent material and structure would be recognisable to Shostakovich.
The first violin and viola have been flattened by a quarter of a tone, creating a spectral effect of ever-present foreboding. Almost throughout there is a simple, repeated folk-like melody, but about six minutes in all four instruments begin a trademark, and breathtaking, glissando spanning several octaves, the violins descending, the cello and viola ascending - before all reversing their glissandi until they arrive back where they started, more than four minutes later! The second movement is much more prickly, having a less apparent structure and even more dissonance; finding Bach in this section is a daunting task. Nevertheless, as with her previous quartets, Coates has created a soundworld of startling, stimulating intensity of colour and texture.
The Kreutzer Quartet, Roderick Chadwick on piano and Peter Sheppard Skærved on solo violin, give convincing performances of this often very challenging music. Sound quality is very good, especially considering that these are live recordings - there is no hint of audience intrusion. A minor grievance is that all three CDs of Coates's string quartets have now been under an hour in length - perhaps Naxos think it beyond mortal capacity to listen any longer? Insightful booklets notes on Coates's music are written as in previous releases by Kyle Gann, who clearly appreciates the significance of Gloria Coates's music. As with previous discs of her music, Naxos have included a print-in-miniature on the front page of another of her expressionist paintings, providing a glimpse of another aspect of Coates's artistry.
Coates is one of the most important and prolific female composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Naxos deserve plaudits for having the courage to bring her music to the attention of a wider public - even if it is rather unlikely that our pop-drenched society will ever hear, let alone understand, her art.
Naxos deserve plaudits for having the courage to bring Coates’ music to wider attention even if it is rather unlikely that our pop-drenched society will ever hear, let alone understand, her art.