Gulfstream: American Chamber Music
Libby LARSEN (b.1950)
Rodeo Queen of Heaven (2010) [9:31]
Peter LIEUWEN (b.1953)
Gulfstream (2007) [11:12]
Peter SCHICKELE (b.1935)
Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (1982) [19:43]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet (1937) [14:36]
enhake-, with Corinne Stillwell (violin) and Pamela Ryan (viola) in Copland
rec. 10-14 May, 2010, Opperman Music Hall, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, USA
NAXOS 8.559692 [55:01]
This is a very fine tasting menu of American chamber music for violin, cello, clarinet and piano. Its four works are united by only one common thread - their extremely high quality. We start with a Libby Larsen work from 2010 and work back to Aaron Copland’s Sextet which adds a violin and viola.
The title of Larsen’s Rodeo Queen from Heaven sounds witty, but it’s really based on a different kind of celestial visitor; the inspiration is a hand-painted wooden carving by Arthur Lopez, of the Madonna bearing a gun and wearing a rodeo costume. Larsen’s piece somehow manages to capture the spirit of this: the piano struts about brash cowboy fashion in the opening moments, and snippets of lyrical Americana-type melody are juggled with wit, rhythmic spunk, and maybe a dash of sarcasm. The heart of the work, though, is a central series of modal meditations on more religiously-toned ideas.
Peter Lieuwen - born in Utrecht, raised in New Mexico - contributes Gulfstream, from 2007, a work which “reacts to his aural impression of the Gulfstream [sic] current,” partly inspired by global warming. That kind of description usually means I’ll hate a piece: compositions inspired by global warming? An ocean current can yield aural impressions? Will there be a sequel about air currents depositing Chinese industrial pollution over New Mexico and west Texas? But Lieuwen’s piece does indeed aspire to evoke, for chamber ensemble, the rough-and-tumble of a warm seascape. By and large it succeeds; it’s quite a pleasure to listen to, and some of the quieter passages (as after 2:45) are frankly wonderful, as is the coda.
For me, though, the highlight is Peter Schickele’s quartet of 1982. Schickele is well-known as the brains behind P.D.Q. Bach, the “last and least” of Bach’s sons (1807-1742!); Schickele has “discovered” such P.D.Q. works as the 1712 Overture, Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion, The Short-Tempered Clavier, and a Pervertimento for Bicycle, Bagpipes, and Balloons. Even when he’s writing as himself, Schickele is accustomed to high spirits: among other things, he’s written a tango for four bassoons based on the ‘Tristan chord’ and an Unbegun Symphony, of which there is only a scherzo and finale.
The quartet here is not nearly as silly as that, so don’t get your hopes up (or down). It is good-humored, but in a friendly, neighborly way, like a warm handshake. Its opening evokes rural Americana, with plenty of good folksy tunes, and its centerpiece is a genuinely emotional elegy in muted colors. The finale is Schickele being witty, but not over-the-top; his humor here is along the lines of Haydn, teasing and playful. One would have to be cold-hearted to dislike music as affectionately done as this.
One would probably also have to dislike Aaron Copland, whose Sextet rounds out the recital. This is a reduction of his Second (‘Short’) Symphony, and it is vintage Copland with the composer’s typical language and incisive rhythm. There’s less of the expansive ‘American west’ feel of his populist music, but it is both playful and confident music anyway.
enhake- is an award-winning quartet which is especially active on the contemporary music circuit. The Libby Larsen piece which opens the program was commissioned and premiered (at Carnegie Hall) by the group, and Peter Lieuwen’s Gulfstream is dedicated to them as well. They certainly do the composers proud, and cannot be faulted on any grounds: their advocacy is impassioned and their playing is more or less exemplary (maybe the cellist’s bow clacks a little too harshly in louder passages). The recording is good, but turn up the volume a bit or else - by some odd trick - it sounds as if everyone is seated very far apart from each other. This is for fans of good and enjoyable contemporary chamber music, or American music in general, or for those who want to hear Peter Schickele when he’s not writing the aural equivalent of slapstick.
Four excellent, brief chamber in a sort of tasting menu of delights from the past 75 years.