Gabriela Lena FRANK (b. 1972)
Hilos (Threads) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2010) [27:19]
Danza de los Saqsampillos for two marimbas (2000/2006) [6:55]
Adagio para Amantaní for cello and piano (2007) [9:43]
Quijotadas for string quartet (2007) [22:45]
Gabriela Lena Frank (piano)
ALIAS Chamber Ensemble
rec. 22-23 May and 1-2 August, 2010, Turner Recital Hall, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
NAXOS 8.559645 [66:41]

Gabriela Lena Frank is a pianist-composer with fascinating ethnic roots, and she explores that heritage in much of her music. Her parents are from Peru and Lithuania and she’s of Jewish descent. The mixture makes for a unique blend, of which the single biggest component is Peru’s native folk-musical styles and rhythms. The centerpiece of the CD is a half-hour chamber work, Hilos (Threads), the threads of which are (one imagines) the four instruments, which appear together and in nearly every available combination of two.

Thus in the first movement of Hilos we get all four instruments together — piano, violin, cello, clarinet — which is reduced to clarinet with a very characterful pizzicato cello in the second dance and a rhapsodic violin solo urged on by piano in the third. The music is all richly evocative of Peruvian folk-dance, with stamping rhythms and impressive virtuosity required. There is melody, but not in the western sense. Readers here are not likely to whistle Hilos, except maybe the toe-tapping “Juegos” for violin, cello, and clarinet. The musical language has impressive internal logic. And a lot of this is pure pleasure, too, like the almost jazzy piano trills in the final movement. I’ve listened repeatedly with great pleasure: the tribes of Peru might not have heard anything quite like this - unless the sidelong glance at Stravinsky in the fourth dance is a happy coincidence - but they and we ought to be happy to.

The Danza de los Saqsampillos might be the easiest work to like on the program: arranged for two marimbas from a two-piano original, it’s a very catchy dance that really realizes the sound potential of the instruments. I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much on piano, not without the back-and-forth between the dueling marimba players and the evocative sounds the instrument conjures up.

The Adagio para Amantaní is a much more withdrawn, introspective work, and though it’s scored for cello and piano they take turns in their laments; if they play together at all it is only for a few seconds. I should note that, according to Gabriela Lena Frank’s wonderful booklet note, Amantaní is an island: “Situated in the middle of Lake Titicaca between Perú and Bolivia, the island is both beautiful and frighteningly barren, and its inhabitants depend on one another deeply in order to survive the cold and arid climate.”

The disc then concludes with Quijotadas, a suite for string quartet based on the Don Quixote: there’s a tripping, lively seguidilla at the beginning (adventures at the inn?), a portrait of the Don’s descent into madness, and another descent portrait, of his entry into the cave, a movement which has a suitably ghostly and mysterious conclusion. The best parts of the quartet - including that outstanding seguidilla - are really terrific, though I wouldn’t rate this as highly as the Danza or Hilos.

That is, however, very high indeed. This is wonderful music, and whether you call it “American” music, or “Latin-American” music, or folk-inspired, or whatever, Gabriela Lena Frank has a distinctive, interesting voice, and she writes extremely well-crafted music that’s a great pleasure to hear. Her piano contributions here are very good, the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble is up to all of Frank’s technical demands and complex rhythms - listen to the exquisite pizzicatos in the seguidilla - and the recorded sound is exemplary. What more can I say? This is a release to be excited about.

When this CD is loaded into a computer, the Gracenote database identifies its genre as “rock.” I’d object but, hey, Danza de los Saqsampillos rocks.

Brian Reinhart

Extremely well-crafted music that’s a great pleasure to hear. Peruvian folk rhythms, but don’t pigeonhole this as “ethnic”.