Gabriela Lena FRANK (b.1972)
In Time's Unfolding
Hilos (Threads), for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2010) [27:18]
Danza de los Saqsampillos, for two marimbas (2006/2010) [6:55]
Adagio para Amantaní, for cello and piano (2007) [9:37]
Quijotadas, for string quartet (2007) [22:59]
ALIAS Chamber Ensemble (Lee Carroll Levine (clarinet), Zeneba Bowers (violin), Matt Walker (cello), Christopher Norton and Todd Kemp (marimbas), Alison Gooding (violin), Chris Farrell (viola))
Gabriela Lena Frank (piano)
rec. Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA, 22-23 May, 1-2 August 2010. DDD

This is the debut CD of both the Nashville-based ALIAS Chamber Ensemble and California-born and -based composer Gabriela Lena Frank, not to mention another marvellous entry in Naxos's huge 'American Classics' series. A surprising number of the discs in this series do contain at least one 'classic', often more - see for example CDs of works by Haskell Small (review), David Gompper (review), Lawrence Dillon (review), Sebastian Currier (review) and Roberto Sierra (review), all from this year (2011).

In this fine programme of premiere recordings there are two major works by Frank and two smaller ones, written for a variety of chamber forces all supplied by ALIAS members with or without Frank herself at the piano. Individual performances are all very creditable, and some - Matt Walker's cello, Frank and Lee Carroll Levine's clarinet - are quite outstanding. The ALIAS Ensemble, whose members are drawn from regional orchestras, deserve further kudos for their not-for-profit ethos.

Hilos (Threads) is the first of three works directly inspired by Peru, written for ALIAS. This varied and vivid eight-movement suite alludes to the weave and pictorialism of Peruvian textiles. There follows something a bit different, a deceptively straightforward-sounding marimba duo, Danza de los Saqsampillos, Frank's arrangement of an earlier piano piece. A saqsampillo is, apparently, a Peruvian jungle-dweller of an unruly nature, yet the music is almost Classical in its restraint and elegance: the Dance is evidently a formal one. Adagio para Amantaní is a heartfelt, often intense tribute to a scenic if stark island (Amantaní) on Lake Titicaca which Frank had recently visited. The best of four very good works is saved to last: Quijotadas is a string quartet after Cervantes' famous Don Quixote, each of its five movements a colourful evocation of scenes or sentiments from the novel.

The publicity blurb for this CD, early reviews and indeed Frank herself make much of the composer's multicultural background, especially the importance of Peruvian culture to her music. All of these may lead a would-be audience to suppose that these works have significant ethnic elements. Yet whilst there is no gainsaying Frank's preference for Spanish titles, nor any denying the influence of indigenous South American music on her writing, the ideas, forms and techniques of the Western heritage of art music are still more prominent. Quijotadas testifies to both facets of her writing: whilst the second movement, Seguidilla para La Mancha, evokes ethnic guitar sounds and rhythms, the overall effect of the music places it squarely in the European tradition. Hilos, similarly, has many delightfully South American moments - the Piazzollan finale not least - but the work's arresting originality is independent of its ethnic fragrance.

Frank's music may be characterised then as fundamentally listener-friendly, with plenty of melodic passages and tonal harmony blended with understated dissonances or atonal snatches. It’s all lighthandedly and imaginatively scored, and a nice mixture of catchy upbeat rhythms, emotive introspection and humour.

The timing of the disc is fairly generous, though it is hard to fathom Naxos's reasons for making two three-minute pieces by Frank, Adoración para Angelitos and The Armadillo's Charango, only available for online streaming or download.

Sound quality is superb. The CD booklet is pretty good too, with detailed notes on the music, written by Frank, and biographies and photos of all the soloists. Finally there is a colour photo of Lena near Machu Picchu - looking more like a montage than a mountain!

A superior disc in every regard.

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A superior disc in every regard.