James WINN (b.1952)
Variations on a Theme of Bartók, for cello and piano (1977, rev. 2010) [8:16]
Masque, for oboe, cello, and piano (1981) [14:23]
Three Nocturnes, for violin, cello, and piano (1986-87) [25:08]
Dmitri Atapine (cello); Rong-Huey Liu (oboe); Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio (violin); James Winn (piano)
rec. October 2014, Tanglewood Studios, Reno, Nevada, USA
MSR CLASSICS MS1588 [47:47]

James Winn is a Nevada-based pianist and composer who writes in a musical style that nearly went out of fashion a hundred years ago. The three chamber works presented here have an appealing simplicity of expression, and openness of spirit, which demonstrate that an old-fashioned romantic language can remain personal today.

The first work up is Variations on a Theme of Bartók, but as Winn quickly points out in his notes, he’s actually an even more conservative composer than Bartók was. This certainly is not a theme from one of the string quartets. Instead, it’s a folk tune which Bartók collected and added to his “For Children”. The melody sounds rather like a Dvorak dumky, and the variation system is (as Winn admits) Brahmsian - quite successfully, I’ll add. Many a cellist would be happy to have such an attractive piece in their repertoire.

Masque, for the unusual trio of oboe, cello and piano, is a three-movement suite inspired by baroque theatre. There is no neo-baroque sound, here, though; instead Winn’s piano writing continues to evoke Brahms, while the work as a whole shows influences of the tuneful, outdoorsy chamber music of composers like Copland or Peter Schickele. The first movement’s climax awkwardly brings the oboe and cello together in unison, but the lively finale makes up for this.

The first of the Three Nocturnes returns us to the world of the last Brahms works, and Winn proves himself a gifted melodist capable of taking advantage of string instruments’ flowing lyricism. My favourite track on the disc is probably the final nocturne, a tribute to Sibelius and a portrayal of a Finnish legend. As with Brahms in the variations, the imitation is so good that it rises above pastiche and becomes a valuable piece in its own right. Winn again proves his gift for melody, even in a quasi-fugal passage.

The recording nicely captures Dmitri Atapine’s cello, as well as the composer’s very skilled piano playing but there’s something amiss with the higher frequencies: violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio sounds a bit recessed and thin, for example, and I know from personal experience that she does not sound like this live. I lived in San Antonio, Texas for several years when she was the concertmaster of its orchestra, and a fixture of its chamber music scene.

The biggest problem with this disc is the best kind of problem to have: there’s not enough of it. The playing time is 48 minutes, and the most recent work on the album dates from 1987. By the way, another Winn piece popped up on Sant’Ambrogio’s “Going Solo” album, which I reviewed here a few years ago. What else has James Winn been writing for the past thirty years? I would love to hear more of it.

Brian Reinhart

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