David RAKOWSKI (b. 1958)
Stolen Moments (2008/2010) [27:08]
Piano Concerto No.2 (2011) [42:42]
Sarah Bob (piano: Moments)
Amy Briggs (piano: Concerto)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 31 May 2012, Distler Performance Hall, Somerville (Moments); 22 January 2014, Jordan Hall, Boston (Concerto)
BMOP SOUND 1048 SACD [70:00]

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project have made quite a name for themselves in the arena of contemporary music. I’ve listened to several of their recordings, and each time have been won over by the level of commitment and musicianship under inspirational conductor Gil Rose. A few months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing their superb recording of music by the Canadian composer Kati Agócs.

Stolen Moments started life as a work for string quartet, woodwind quintet and piano in 2008. Two years later Rakowski was asked to arrange it for chamber orchestra (double woodwinds, two horns, full strings and piano) and this version was premiered by the U.S. Marine Chamber Orchestra in May 2011. This transcription is what we have here. It's a highly colourful score peppered with jazz, tango and blues, which is surprising considering Rakowski claims he doesn't know anything about jazz, and rarely listens to it. Rigorous, persistent rhythms inform the general character of the opening movement, and the spontaneous feel is reminiscent of an improvised jam session. The piano, in the capable hands of Sarah Bob, contributes two strides. Leaving jazz we take up blues in the second movement, which is evocative of an African-American spiritual. There's almost a static dimension to this serenely thoughtful music. A lonely landscape immediately springs to mind, yet the effect is soothing. It's certainly the movement I like the most. The piano is consigned to the shadows, its solemn tolling chords adding an air of disquiet and foreboding. The transparent textures of the third movement, where the piano is notably absent, is all the more effective for some alluring woodwind solos. Described as a 'stylized tango', the underlying changing rhythms are positively 'sultry' as the title suggests. Rakowski spices things up in the finale, where the piano opens with a striking solo. Rose coaxes some vim and vigour from the players, bringing the work to an impressive close.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 dates from 2011 and is a big-boned score, cast in three substantial movements, of roughly fifteen minutes duration each. The pianist is Amy Briggs, who has collaborated with Rakowski on many occasions. He is known for his one hundred piano études, some of which she has programmed in her recitals. Her career has focused on contemporary music and she's a more than competent jazz player. For Briggs the work is a bespoke creation; she collaborated throughout its gestation, with the composer accommodating her style in the writing. He, himself, makes no claim to be a pianist, but rather refers to himself as a 'failed trombonist'. Rakowski had studied with Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) who died during the work’s composition. In tribute, the second movement became an elegy for him. Each of the three movements has multiple subdivisions, and each could almost work as a stand-alone piece. Rakowski is a master orchestrator and his imaginative scoring shows much ingenuity and invention, offering many opportunities for each section of the orchestra to have its moment in the spotlight. The piano writing demands of the player a formidable technical arsenal and acute sense of rhythm. Amy Briggs’ stylish performance scores highly in this regard. Rose coaxes a myriad array of sonorities from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Both works are stunningly recorded. The engineers have worked wonders balancing the various sections of the orchestra with the piano. Annotations are superbly detailed, and include a lengthy 'comment' by the composer, where he employs his unique brand of wry humour.

Stephen Greenbank

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