Augusta Read THOMAS (b.1964)
Music for Strings
Incantation for solo violin (1995) [5.34]
Stefan Hersh (violin)
Passion Prayers for solo cello, flute, clarinet, violin, piano, harp and percussion (1999) [10.14]
Scott Kluksdahl (cello); Network for New Music/Jan Krywicki
Spirit Musings – Violin Concerto No 1 for solo violin and chamber ensemble (1997) [11.41]
Marc Rovetti (violin); Student Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Centre/Laura Jackson
Cantos for Slava for viola and piano (2007) [13.09]
Leah Gastler (viola); Christopher Janwong McKiggan (piano)
Jubilee for orchestra (2010) [16.08]
Juilliard School Student Orchestra/Xian Zhong
rec. live, Alice Tully Hall, 30 April 2010
Rumi Settings for violin and cello (2001) [11.21]
Stefan Hersh (violin); Julian Hersh (cello)
Dancing Galaxy for wind ensemble (2014) [9.57]
Southern Methodist University Student Wind Ensemble/Jack Delaney
rec. dates and locations not given

Augusta Read Thomas was fifty last year (2014), and in the wake of her birthday this CD, plus three others, have emerged on Nimbus Alliance (see review of other orchestral works). They enable us to take a grand overall view of her style and language. I reviewed Volume 2 during 2014 and like that disc, this latest one has a variety of young performers. How lucky she has been to have a company who is so much on her side and performers who are more than willing to bring her work, so brilliantly, to a wider, European public.

Although this new disc is marked as ‘Music for Strings’ it is more a miscellaneous disc — a mopping up exercise you might say — of pieces that did not quite fit on previous discs. For me this is the best so far. It does however begin with a piece for solo violin — an unusual start and a very personal one.

Incantation is one of Thomas’s earliest recognised works and was written for her violin teacher Catherine Tait who died young, soon after its premiere. There are several clear motifs, which repeat and develop, slowly ending with a painful major seventh — “a question” as Carson Cooman remarks in the detailed and handy booklet notes.

The three most significant works, as far as length is concerned, are centrally placed on the disc. It isn’t very often that a composer has a Flute Concerto re-arranged by the flautist into one for violin but that’s exactly what happened with Spirit Musings. It came out as Thomas’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The piece plays without a break but falls into three sections ‘Spirited, clear and energetic’, ‘Resonant and elegant’, ‘Majestic and lyric’. I have failed to find much in the way of contrast between these movements. The work has an extraordinary tensile beauty which is occasionally thinned out or thickened with high percussion and extra instrumentation. The consistently high tessitura of the violin makes me wonder if it might have worked better as a flute concerto. Sometimes, first thoughts are best.

The next work is also a transcription. Cantos for Slava was originally for cello and piano and dedicated to Rostropovich “a great champion of Thomas’s music”. She has created several alternative versions and this very beautiful piece for viola and piano works well I think. Again it is in three movements. The faster middle one is marked ‘Playful and energetic’ and features some especially resonant pizzicato playing; the great cellist had an ability to play pizzicato in a particularly expressive way. The piano also plucks inside the instrument. In fact in movement one it has 80 different pitches: the age of Rostropovich when he played the original work. Quite a highlight.

Passion Prayers is for cello and six instruments. It's a mini concerto, related to three other works featuring the cello and, it seems, exploring similar material. Scott Kluksdahl, the performer here and dedicatee, has also played the other works including ‘Ritual Incantations’ for cello and a larger ensemble. The style is one of lyrical lines but also of much tension created by the almost acidic orchestration. It leaves one feeling excited yet edgy.

Tense, crossing, polyphonic lines are most effective orchestrally. In movement 1 of Jubilee — subtitled ‘Awakening Souls’ — Thomas uses this technique in the brass fanfares. The second movement is equally energetic. It is marked ‘caprice’. By contrast the third is ‘reverie’, ‘prayer for a departed friend’ and is at times almost Mahlerian in its long melodic contours. The finale ‘Gambol’ is a virtuoso romp, which reminded me of the last of Boulez’s ‘Notations’ except that Thomas begins and ends with excitable bongos. Written for students, it is quite clear what a hit this work must have been with them. Xian Zhong extracts some very precise playing.

Transcribed for violin and cello from the original violin and viola version, Rumi Settings made the least appeal to me. The four beautiful poems, which inform the work, are printed in the booklet in fine translations by Coleman Barks. Apart from the spacious and thoughtful third the music of the others inhabits a stressful and intense atmosphere, which, for this listener anyway, seems out of kilter with the calm poise of the poems themselves.

There is little doubt as to the commitment of each of these performances while the annotations, as remarked, are highly informative. As a good example we reach the last work on the CD. Dancing Galaxy makes an exciting finale and is played exuberantly by a young wind band. This starts and ends in the depths of space one might say with mystery and darkness but within it has four wild dances. The language, as in the other works, is often dissonant and brittle but not atonal and with many tonal reference points. The orchestration is colourful and totally idiomatic — not an easy feat with such an ensemble. A terrific close to an exciting CD.

Gary Higginson

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