Sidney CORBETT (b.1960)
Absconditus, for violin and cello (2011) [15:01]
Detroit Chronicles, for violin and piano (1995) [20:02]
Schneetod, for violin, mezzo and piano (2005) [7:00]
Nova Angeletta, for violin and mezzo (1996) [5:16]
Archipel Chagall I, for violin (1998) [23:47]
Sarah Plum (violin); Jonathan Ruck (cello); Timothy Lovelace (piano); Patricia Green (mezzo)
rec. Blue Griffin Ballroom Studio, 2011. DDD
Rather unusually for an independent label, the performer gets star billing here: turn over the front cover of the digipak-style case and violinist Sarah Plum's name appears in the same font and font-size as the CD title Absconditus. Open the booklet and first comes a two-page biography of Plum - turn over for Sidney Corbett. Never mind, though, because they have been friends for a good many years. This disc is the product of much collaboration, not least the fact that the title work was written expressly for Plum to record for it.
Such back-seat positioning may well be behind Germany-based Corbett's relative obscurity, though it may come as a surprise to learn that he actually has a reasonable discography under him, not to mention a substantial body of works dating back to 1983.
This disc offers a generous selection of his more recent chamber music, the proviso being that Plum's violin is involved. All but Detroit Chronicles are described as first recordings, although the track listing labels only Absconditus as a premiere.
A prominent quotation in the booklet and on Corbett's website, which appeared in the Berliner Zeitung last year, states that "Possibly no composer today writes more beautiful music than Sidney Corbett ... whose attractive sonorities are intricately woven and compel close listening." That is a big claim indeed and one which, in all likelihood, the typical music-lover raised on Mozart, Tchaikovsky or Debussy will not find substantiated by the music on this CD. These chamber works have an asceticism that will likely prove simply too 'modern' to those.
So much will be apparent from the very first seconds of the plunky, wheezy atonality of Absconditus, although in fairness to Corbett he admits to trying something new in this work, and "seeking sounds behind the sounds". Timothy Lovelace's piano replaces Jonathan Ruck's cello for Detroit Chronicles, but the effect is similar. That said, Plum provides numerous long lyrical lines on the violin, the piano is notably more disjointed, and evidence of the stylistic influence of Corbett's teacher György Ligeti begins to accrue.
What is also apparent so far is that Corbett's music has a tendency towards dark and despair, an impression that is hardly likely to be dispelled by Schneetod, his aptly austere setting of a poem by the seventeen-year-old son of a friend, the 'Snow Death' referring not to avalanches but to a cocaine overdose. Patricia Green sings pretty well in German, but alas for the listener there is neither original nor translation to follow in the booklet. The piano drops out for the brief Nova Angeletta, a setting of Petrarch, but the bleak mood continues. This seven-hundred-year-old text is obviously in the public domain, and short, so this time there is no excusing its omission from the booklet. Green's Italian diction is also very good, and her heavy voice conveys well the mystical quality of the text.
The final work, the six-movement Archipel Chagall I for solo violin, is arguably the most accessible piece: still fairly flinty and stark, yet bewitchingly atmospheric. When push comes to shove, there are many living composers writing music that is more instantly accessible than Corbett's: more tonal, more melodic, more structured, more 'old school'. Yet his is nevertheless compelling, at least for those who enjoy that kind of thing, in its allusiveness, its layered complexity and its indelible aura of mystery.
Sarah Plum has long been a staunch advocate for contemporary music, and has a longstanding familiarity with Corbett's in particular - last year, for example, she gave the American premiere of his violin concerto, Yaël. She gives a suitably terrific account of all these pieces, with fine support from the other soloists, easily navigating the often difficult terrain with aplomb.

Sound quality is very good, if rather reverberant and close - there is no obvious need to hear Plum's every intake of breath. The booklet is neat and informative, with notes on the works by Corbett himself.
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Flinty and stark, yet bewitchingly atmospheric.