Joseph SCHWANTNER (b. 1943)
Percussion Concerto (1994) [27:56]
Morning’s embrace (2005) [20:20]
Chasing light… (2008) [19:44]
Christopher Lamb (percussion) (Concerto)
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. Laura Turner Concert Hall, Nashville, 17-19 February 2011 (Concerto); Ben’s Studio, Nashville, 6 June 2010.
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559678 [68:00]
To European listeners probably their first - and possibly their only – encounter with the music of Joseph Schwantner came when Adrian Spillett won the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1998 playing his Percussion Concerto. It was not only the exceptionally characterful playing that caught the attention, but also the uninhibited zest of the writing in a work that had been premièred only four years earlier. Yet, one wondered, would the music stand up in purely aural terms divorced from the unashamedly histrionic performance given by a player with Spillett‘s infectious personality?
Well, now we can find out – and it does. The performer here is Christopher Lamb, who gave that first performance in 1994 and also worked closely with the composer, who acknowledges that he “helped shape and propel the flow of my musical ideas”. This close association comes across well in this performance, and although one misses Adrian Spillett’s cheerful abandon there is ample compensation in the strictly driving rhythms that Lamb propels forward with such verve. In the slow movement, Lamb’s vibraphone sounds very different from the mellow timbre that one would expect, much more metallic and somehow rather higher pitched. Are American percussionists perhaps used to a rather different instrument, less like the xylorimba-types to which we have become accustomed over here? In the finale Lamb does not indulge himself with the shout of sheer exuberant joy that Adrian Spillett allowed himself at the climax of the cadenza; even if it was inauthentic, one does rather miss it.
The two other works on this disc are receiving their recording premières, and both are tone poems reflecting different aspects of sunrise in New Hampshire. Morning’s embrace starts slowly and meditatively, with an evocation of the calm before dawn, but soon explodes into a variety of colour reflecting sunlight through trees. It is all very nicely written, but one does have a slight sense of unease about the predominance of the percussion in the score – fine when the glittering tuned percussion evoke an image of rays of light sparkling on dew, but rather less effective in the use of drumbeats which consistently underpin and sometimes dominate the more meditative music which surrounds them; almost as if Schwantner were wishing to write another movement of the percussion concerto.
The latest work here, Chasing light, was written as part of a commissioning programme sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, who receive credit not only in a half-page acknowledgement on the back cover of the CD but also a two full pages of coverage in the CD booklet itself, which might seem excessive for a work which is the shortest on this CD and rather upstages four other sponsors of the work whose various contributions are acknowledged in a single line. On the other hand, one does not wish to discourage sponsorship of the arts from any source, and presumably Ford can claim additional tax advantages from the use of their sponsorship for advertising purposes. The music itself is very worthwhile. At first one again has the nagging suspicion that the percussion are taking a little too much of the limelight. Soon a greater variety of textures becomes apparent, leading finally to a beautiful if slightly short-breathed chorale theme redolent of Copland in his Appalachian spring mood which comes to dominate the final section to thrilling effect. Thank you, Ford Motor Company – keep up the good work, and take all the publicity credit you want.
These works were all given their first performances by different orchestras, and only Lamb in the Percussion Concerto is therefore the creator of this music. The composer in his booklet note rather ungallantly gives credit to another solo oboist in Chasing light than the player here – but the Nashville orchestra is a known quantity, and they give marvellous readings under their music director. The recordings, made in two distinct locations – the studio used for Morning’s embrace and Chasing light is the former RCA Music Studio A in Nashville – are beautifully balanced and the sound is both warm and detailed.
Paul Corfield Godfrey