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Stephen PAULUS (1949-2014)
Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (Three Places of Enlightenment) (1995) [25:17]
Veil of Tears for String Orchestra (from To be Certain of the Dawn) (2005) [4:29]
Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (2004) [27:34]
Jun Iwasaki, Carolyn Wann Bailey (violins), Daniel Reinker (viola), Anthony LaMarchina (cello), Nathan J. Laube (organ)
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. live, Laura Turner Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville Tennessee, USA, 2012/13
NAXOS 8.559740 [57:21]

I first came across the music of Stephen Paulus a couple of years ago in preparing a choral concert. I was struck then how very well written it was for the forces it used, and also pleased that it made an immediate impact upon the audience. The music here is perhaps more challenging and ‘serious’, but it has those same characteristics, making this disc a fascinating listening experience.

So we have two concertos of very similar profile and dimensions, flanking a short piece for string orchestra. The first three tracks contain the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, a work written at the behest of the leader of the Cleveland Quartet, William Preucil. It’s interesting that the middle movement is by far the longest – longer in fact than the other two put together – and also that the Grand Concerto on tracks 5-7 has very much the same profile.

What of the music’s style and content? Firstly, I’d recommend listening to the CD before you read too much of the ‘blurb’, some of which is a little off-putting and pompous. I found this an enormously rewarding and enjoyable listen; Paulus is not a progressive composer, nor is he a ‘minimalist’. As you listen, you are more likely to relate his style to music of the second half of the twentieth century – Shostakovich, perhaps, in the nervous rhythms of the Concerto for String Quartet’s thrusting first movement, and maybe even Tippett in the rather beautiful but uneasy slow movement that follows. That is not to say that Paulus is derivative; I only cite these composers to give a stylistic reference point.

The concerto is sub-titled Three Places of Enlightenment, and each movement has a title too; the first is From Within, the second From Afar and the lively third is From All Around and Radiating Ever Outward. Make of that what you will, but the simple fact is that this is entertaining music, superbly conceived for the forces involved.

Veil of Tears is an interlude from Paulus’ holocaust-inspired oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn. It is a searching, desolate piece — again Shostakovich comes to mind — which could and should find its way into the established string orchestra repertoire. Once more, the composer shows what a wonderful ear he has for texture, and creates music which, while not incredibly hard to play, still manages to use to the full the resources available to him.

The programme on this disc is well constructed, because the Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra begins in darkness, following on from the mood of Veil of Tears. This first movement soon opens out into an eventful quicker section, contrasting the solo organ and the various sections of the orchestra in highly effective ways. The recording is excellently balanced – organ concertos are notoriously tricky in this respect – and the alert, characterful playing of the Nashville orchestra under Guerrero comes over with total clarity.

Another refreshing characteristic of Paulus is that he is not afraid of melody. The middle movement of the Grand Concerto begins with a fine example, a winding descending line that ends with the quiet entry of woodwind and strings. The textures here are wonderful, the high-pitched reed tones of the organ blending and mixing with the upper woodwind. Neither is he afraid of a climax, as the colossal build-up at the centre of this magnificent movement (sub-titled Austere: Foreboding) attests. Out of this emerges a long climbing melody in the violins that seems the antithesis of the despondent falling phrase of the opening. The movement ends very quietly. Incidentally, in his note on this movement, the composer mentions his reference to a hymn-tune Come, come ye saints, set to an English folk-melody All is Well. It’s heard softly in the organ near the end.

Busy strings and percussion usher in the finale, Jubilant. It certainly is, and witty too, as it seems to re-create the celebratory mood of the good old Widor Toccata. The energy is vast, and over the organ’s frenzied activity, Paulus introduces the tune O Waly Waly high in the violins. Not sure why, but that doesn’t matter – it’s an exhilarating ride.

All in all, a wonderful CD, and one I would passionately commend to anyone searching for a modern composer who is neither bamboozlingly obscure nor patronisingly accessible.

Gwyn Parry-Jones