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Jennifer HIGDON (b.1962)
Amazing Grace, trad. arr. string quartet (1998/2003) [4:40]
Sky Quartet, for string quartet (1997/2000) [21:41]
Sonata, for viola and piano (1990) [18:50]
Dark Wood, for bassoon, violin, cello and piano (2001) [12:01]
String Trio (1988) [18:30]
Serafin String Quartet (Kate Ransom (violin), Timothy Schwarz (violin), Molly Carr (viola), Lawrence Stomberg (cello))
Charles Abramovic (piano)
Eric Stomberg (bassoon)
rec. Gore Recital Hall, University of Delaware, USA, August 2011; December 2011 (Dark Wood); January 2012 (Trio); March 2012 (Sonata).

This latest entry in the monumental Naxos 'American Classics' series is a somewhat belated follow-up to a collection of Jennifer Higdon's chamber music released by Naxos in 2006. That disc featured her Piano Trio and two works for string quartet (8.559298 - see review). This latest comes with a rummy album title: Higdon's 'early' chamber works somehow include some she wrote little over a decade ago, around the age of forty. Moreover, Voices from the earlier release predates two or three of those here by several years, as does Legacy, her single contribution to a more recent Naxos anthology of short American works for violin and piano (8.559662).
Higdon rightly won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her memorable Violin Concerto - championed by dedicatee Hilary Hahn and now available on Deutsche Grammophon (4778777) - but the fact that her Percussion Concerto had the previous year won a Grammy Award, as dished out by international music industry brass, gives some idea as to the degree to which her music has wide, almost democratic appeal, especially in the USA. The gentle lyricism of Legacy (mentioned above) is one aspect of her approachability, whilst the beat-heavy, film-music-like introduction to Dark Wood - the like of which also turns up in two unmissable chamber works released by Cedille Records, Zaka (CDR90000 094) and String Poetic (CDR 90000 103) - reveals another.
On the other hand, it is fair to say that even nods to minimalism are quickly contextualised in more sophisticated art music discourse that could well catch the fair-weather listener unawares. Some works, like the early String Trio and the Viola Sonata, are a more exigent, more 'European' listen from beginning to end. That makes starting off the programme with Higdon's arrangement of the folk hymn-tune 'Amazing Grace' (or 'New Britain', to be precise) a good idea, getting listeners of all persuasions in the mood for the more intricate - though never unmelodious - fare that follows.
In twos, threes and fours the Serafin Quartet perform in all five recordings, and Higdon is quick to point up the value of their contribution in her notes. The Serafins' debut CD (for Centaur) only came out in 2010, and somewhat ironically, two members have moved on since the present recording, with Esme Allen-Creighton the new violist and Lisa Vaupel new violin. Yet there is still plenty of experience in their line-up, which translates here to a poised, professional reading. The Serafins are especially attractive in the al fresco Sky Quartet, which gets its name, as the CD cover suggests, from the heavens above Colorado.
Sound quality is good, although the Serafin members are perhaps a little too closely miked - certainly their breathing is frequently audible, Molly Carr in the Viola Sonata especially. Higdon's own notes on her works are fairly brief but informative. The introductory paragraph - unauthored, but by the Serafin Quartet? - is hagiographic: "Jennifer [is] now one of the most influential composers in America, if not the world. [...] each piece is masterful, compelling and uniquely Higdon. [...] It has been an honor to work with a composer of such immense talent and warm personality". Listeners who know enough of her music do not need telling.
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