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Composing America
John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Five Pages from John’s Book of Alleged Dances [14:25]
William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Billy in the Darbies [8:13]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Two Pieces for String Quartet [8:24]
Paul MORAVEC (b. 1957)
Piano Quintet [24:33]
Lark Quartet; Yousif Sheronick (percussion) (Adams); Stephen Salters (baritone) (Bolcom); Jeremy Denk (piano) (Moravec)
rec. 3-4 April 2012 (Moravec), 13 December 2012 (Adams), 30 January 2013 (Bolcom, Copland), Recital Hall, SUNY Purchase, Purchase, New York, USA
BRIDGE RECORDS 9423 [55:35]

“Composing America” is an ambitious title, but the Lark Quartet lives up to it with an ambitious and diverse selection of American sounds. The lento opening movement of Aaron Copland’s Two Pieces evokes the wide open western spaces of Copland’s most famous works, like Billy the Kid, while the propulsive energy of John Adams’ Alleged Dances brings to mind the forces of minimalism and rock music. Four of the five dances presented here have percussion accompaniments written by the performer and approved by the composer. William Bolcom’s Billy in the Darbies sets to music a poem by Herman Melville which was later the basis for the novel (and Britten opera) Billy Budd.
 
Those who know the superb Lark Quartet will expect a total success, and they will be rewarded. The Lark Quartet in fact commissioned and premiered the Bolcom work and the Piano Quintet by Paul Moravec. These four women are at the forefront of composing America, and of performing it. Their collaborator on the Bolcom premiere was baritone Stephen Salters, who joins them ably to sing the poem on this album as well.
 
If Adams and Copland are relatively “known” musical voices which sound recognizably like themselves, William Bolcom is more of a chameleon. He’s written wonderful ragtime piano jazz, he’s composed a few fascinating orchestral works, but his great strength is in song settings, and the work here is invaluable. Paul Moravec is the least-known of the four composers, though perhaps not for long. His music has filled several successful Naxos albums, and his Tempest Fantasy won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.
 
The Piano Quintet is the toughest piece on the album, but if you get queasy around “edgy” music, please know it’s not that tough. It eschews traditional melody, and especially it forgoes the kinds of easy, folksy “American” tunes which dominate the rest of the programme. If you like, say, Bartók, you won’t get grumpy. The first movement is the sharpest and most dramatic. Pianist Jeremy Denk opens the slow movement with a lyrical respite of a solo, and the finale also has a more reflective episode at its heart, including (after 4:00) my favourite episode in the piece, one of the few parts which could be described as “deceptively simple”.
 
As mentioned before, the four women of the Lark Quartet are impassioned advocates of this music, half of which they commissioned; Stephen Salters and Jeremy Denk were both also the intended first performers of the works they play here. The sound, engineered by Judith Sherman - of whose Grammy nominations I’ve lost count - and Jeanne Velonis, is exemplary.
 
Brian Reinhart