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Chester BISCARDI (b.1948)
In Time's Unfolding
In Time's Unfolding, for piano (2000) [5:41]
Tartini, for violin and piano (1972) [4:45]
Piano Quintet (2004) [13:31]
Mestiere, for piano (1979) [5:34]
Di Vivere, for piano, violin and ensemble (1981) [9:46]
The Viola Had Suddenly Become a Voice, for viola and piano (2005) [4:34]
Companion Piece (for Morton Feldman), for contrabass and piano (1989) [7:05]
In Time's Unfolding, for piano (2000) [5:51]
Marc Peloquin (piano) [In Time's Unfolding; Companion Piece]
Curtis Macomber (violin) [Tartini; Quintet; Di Vivere]
Blair McMillen (piano) [Tartini; Quintet; Mestiere; Di Vivere]
Daniel Panner (viola) [Quintet]
Yonah Zur (violin) [Quintet]
Greg Hesselink (cello) [Quintet]
Da Capo Chamber Players (Macomber, McMillen, Meighan Stoops (clarinet), Patricia Spencer (flute), André Emilianoff (cello)) [Di Vivere]
Paul Neubauer (viola) [The Viola]
James Goldsworthy (piano) [The Viola]
Mark Helias (contrabass) [Companion Piece]
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 20-21 September 2009; 14 January 2009 [Quintet, The Viola]. DDD

Experience Classicsonline

This is American composer Chester Biscardi's debut on Naxos. Several of his works have appeared previously on other labels, including Bridge, Albany, Intim and most notably New World Records, who have featured at least one of Biscardi's works on six separate albums, including a re-issue of CRI's 1996 CD with one of the bluntest titles in the art music domain - 'Gay American Composers' (CRI 721/NWCR721), complete with bare-chested male torso and unbuttoned jeans by way of cover 'art'.

Naxos, thankfully, continue to leave composers' sexual orientation out of things, and press on with their immense, and generally brilliant, 'American Classics' series. It would be very peculiar if every disc lived up to that title, but a surprising number do contain at least one 'classic', often more: already this year, CDs of works by Haskell Small, David Gompper (review), Lawrence Dillon (review), Sebastian Currier (review), Roberto Sierra (review) and David Post (review), all living composers, have borne out Naxos's judgement and confirmed that this is without doubt one of the most rewarding series by any label ever. This disc of piano and chamber works by Biscardi, though distinctly lacking in length, can safely be added to that list.

The CD - rather brassily - opens and closes with the same piano piece, In Time's Unfolding, taken from a poem by American author Galway Kinnell, 'When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone'. The work was commissioned by the US Music Library Association, and their stipulation that the music should "look forward and reflect backward at the same time" is presumably justification for the repetition. Incorporating snippets or ideas from Schumann, Gershwin, Copland, Carter, Jarrett and himself, Biscardi describes it as "at once poignant and painful, lonely, exuberant, heroic, and — in a concentrated way — epic." It is certainly very American, mellifluous and, though not in any way earth-shattering, a pleasant way to pass six minutes (twice).

Though it would be difficult for all but the non-specialist listener to tell, Tartini, for violin and piano, makes use of a twelve-tone row constructed from Giuseppe Tartini's so-called "Devil's Trill" Sonata, as well as melodic fragments and techniques from the same. What Tartini would make of the result is anyone's guess, but Biscardi himself describes it as "the first significant work that I wrote as an adult." Like much of Biscardi's music, Tartini is often restrained, contrasted here with bursts of violinistic virtuosity. Though it flirts moodily with atonality, overall the effect is agreeably euphonious, though perhaps too brief to be compelling.

Mestiere and Di Vivere are companion works of a sort, in that their titles are taken from two halves of the collected journals of twentieth century Italian writer Cesare Pavese (1908-50), Il Mestiere di Vivere ('The Business of Living'). Biscardi says that they may be performed together, Di Vivere either as a quintet for clarinet in A and piano, with flute, violin and cello, as here, or as a duo for the clarinet and piano alone. Mestiere is a short, ponderous, atonal piece, and serves as a prelude to the more immediately attractive Di Vivere, which was commissioned by and premiered in 1982 by the Da Capo Players themselves - flautist Patricia Spencer and cellist André Emilianoff are, amazingly, still in this splendid ensemble's line-up.

From one quintet to another, this one simmering with pathos: Biscardi's Piano Quintet is a loving, touching remembrance by the composer of his father, whom he lost when he was twelve. In a sense, it is more of a duo for violin and piano with accompaniment than a true quintet, the other three strings providing textural support rather than participating with any genuine equality, but this imaginative, sombre, introspective work is Biscardi's American Classic.

Music-lovers in whom the mere mention of Morton Feldman induces a feeling of drowsiness need not fear Companion Piece. Though inspired by a visit Biscardi paid to Feldman's apartment, and borrowing one or two ideas from the latter's music, Biscardi himself admits, very politely, that "Feldman's sounds are ‘drier’, more minimal than mine." Companion Piece is a tonal, gently hypnotic, almost meditative work for piano and contrabass - a tranquil duet, although Biscardi also allows for the contrabass part to be omitted.

Finally, the only nondescript thing about The Viola Had Suddenly Become a Voice is the title itself, which is taken from a line in an obscure mystery novel. Like Companion Piece, it is a lyrical, slightly melancholic and rather lovely short, written in memory of Jacob Glick, the violist father of American soprano Judith Bettina.

In every piece, Biscardi's music is given a cordial, glowing performance by experienced and up-and-coming soloist alike, with violinist Curtis Macomber and pianist Blair McMillen meriting a special mention.

Sound quality is excellent. The CD booklet is too, with - for Naxos - unusually detailed notes on the music, supplied by Biscardi, and biographies of all soloists regardless of the size of their contribution to the programme. There are little photographs too of many; curiously, Biscardi, 63 this year, is pictured looking as he must have done around 30 years ago. The only untidy business about the CD is the confusing listing of musicians under the track titles, where numerals are used in random order to attach performers to works, and perusing eyes are forced to dart back and forth between lists to see not only who is playing what, but even the forces specified for any given work.

The CD is much shorter than it really ought to be, especially taking into account the wholesale repetition of In Time's Unfolding at the end of the programme. A couple of longer works by Biscardi would have given listeners a fuller picture of his talent, but on the basis of these chamber works, there is plenty to admire, and every reason to hope for more to come.

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