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Augusta Read THOMAS (b.1964)
Chamber and Piano Works
Scat (2007) [6.13]
The Walden Chamber Players
Six Piano Etudes (1996) [17.26]
Amy Briggs (piano)
Double Helix (Mansueta Tribute) (2011) [3.53]
Janet Sung; Yuan-Quing Yu (violins)
Ring Flourish Blaze (2000) [1.51]
Southern Methodist University Wind Ensemble/Jack Delaney
A Circle round the sun (2000) [4.54]
The Walden Chamber Players
Pilgrim Soul (2011) [10.44]
Robert Walters (cor anglais); Stefan Hersh, Steve Rose (violins)
Traces for solo piano (2007) [13.51]
Makiko Hirato (piano)
Toft Serenade (2006) [6.46]
Charles Morley (violin); Frank Huang (piano)
Starlight Ribbons (2013) [14.27]
Daniel Schlosberg (piano)
rec. no details supplied.

Augusta Read Thomas is an American composer with an impressive list of compositions that are influenced by modern composers and by jazz. This very full disc offers a varied selection of her work for smaller forces. A number of her orchestral works appeared on Volume One in this series. This is encouraging news as this is in the main a very substantial, interesting and rewarding collection, well performed and recorded.

The first piece Scat enjoys the distinction of having been premiered in a prison. It is an impish work with, later on in the piece, some humour in which the five instruments are used in much the same way that jazz singers use the voice to improvise. I found it appealing, lively and accessible, certainly not without melody and it is very well played by The Walden Chamber Players. This certainly repays several listens and develops in an unexpected way after the dawn-like beginning.

Amy Briggs follows with Six Piano Etudes that are hommages to composers including Bartók, Boulez and, very effectively in Cathedral Waterfall, Messiaen. There are other times on this disk that where some influence of this great French composer is felt. The notes emphasise that Thomas’s approach is subliminal, evoking in the listener a certain sound-world. These are certainly compositions of originality and Rain At Funeral, homage to Feldman, certainly called to mind such a scene, rather like a modern Raindrop prelude. It was a piece that particularly took me.

There is quite a change of sound with Double Helix for two violins. This is an unusual combination but effective in the way that the two instruments converse with each other in the true spirit of chamber music. The short Ring Flourish Blaze has a very different atmosphere - that of a lively fanfare. A Circle round the sun for piano trio starts very quietly and timidly before developing into its stride. Whilst the composer alludes to a “Sun flare” or “children scattering on a playground in all directions” I found it a deep work and was very impressed with what Thomas has achieved in the space of only five minutes. Pilgrim Soul, most effectively scored for cor anglais and two violins, is inspired by a poem by W.B. Yeats “When you are old” which was interesting for someone who studied the Irish poet at A Level. It is a song without words and has an aura of loneliness and isolation. This is clearly the work of a composer of some substance and has an appealing emotional quality.

Traces played by Makiko Hirato comes eleven years after Six Piano Etudes and certainly shows the multiple inspirations at work. There are sub-titles such as 'Scarlatti crossed with Art Tatum' and 'Thelonius Monk with Chopin' but I found it hard to grasp these connections. This the least satisfactory work although others may enjoy it more. Toft Serenade with wistful interplay for violin and piano shows, as do earlier works on the disk, Thomas’s skill at composing an effective interplay between instruments. Its only fault was that it was over too soon. The notes mention several times the composer’s smiling face shining through but for me it seemed quite sombre as a Serenade but no less successful for that.

Starlight Ribbons is for solo piano and quite frankly was above my head. It maybe a clever combination of Jazz and Classical but it seemed to me ambling and tuneless. Only at this stage did I read my colleague Gary Higginson’s earlier review and agreed that I prefer Thomas’s instrumental works over the piano pieces though I did enjoy some of the Etudes. Thus this piece came as a slightly disappointing finish to a disc that generally I found a good and by no means difficult listen. The playing seemed fine though it is problematic to be certain when the music is unknown.

There are several other records by Thomas and I certainly look forward to hearing them. Despite certain reservations, which may well be my personal taste, this collection should speak to all those prepared to hear something new.

David Dunsmore

Previous review: Gary Higginson