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George TSONTAKIS (b. 1951)
Anasa for clarinet and orchestra (2011) [23:42]
True Colors for trumpet and orchestra (2012) [18:06]
Unforgettable for two violins and orchestra (1009 revised 2013) [21:24]
David Krakauier (clarinet), Eric Berlin (trumpet), Luosha Fang and Eunice Kim (violins)
Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller
rec. 2011-2013, Troy Savings Bank Hall; EMPAC Concert Hall, Troy, USA
NAXOS 8.559826 [63:12]

This is my first encounter with the music of George Tsontakis. He is an American composer of Greek, specifically Cretan, background. He studied with Roger Sessions and Franco Donatoni and his music has apparently been widely performed. He has won one of the most prestigious awards for classical music, the Grawemeyer Award, which he received for his second violin concerto in 2005. He writes in an attractive tonal idiom and accepts influences not only from Greek music but also from klezmer, the Jewish music of Eastern Europe, which has been revived in the USA, and from jazz.

We have here three concertos, each with an evocative name. The individual movements also have individual names. Anasa is for clarinet, and Tsontakis was inspired in writing it by the playing of David Krakauer. I think of how Mozart was inspired to write his clarinet concerto by the playing of Anton Stadler and Brahms his clarinet works by the playing of Richard Mühlfeld. Anasa is nominally in three movements, but the first divides into two: a slow and languid introduction named Doyna followed by a fast dance called Pistoli, as pistol shots are fired into the air at Cretan weddings. There follows a substantial slow movement named Soliloquy in a meditative post-romantic idiom, which reminded me distantly of Berg. The short finale is Bir-Zirk! which is both celebratory and serious.

I found this work quite delightful and was greatly charmed by the playing of David Krakauer, who can squeeze notes and produce slides and inflections as do klezmer players but, unlike some of them, without rough edges, squawks or occasional duff notes.

I was less taken with the second work, the trumpet concerto True Colors. This is in two movements. Here the influence of jazz replaces that of Greek music and klezmer. Nothing wrong with that, and I enjoyed the first movement, Prologue: Echoing, which is a kind of fantasia on fanfares, with the orchestral brass responding to calls from the solo trumpet. There are two quieter interludes featuring the glockenspiel. Towards the end a three note descending theme appears, which will be important in the second movement, Magic Act. This begins quietly, and the solo trumpet is muted, an interesting feature. There is then a kind of slow jazzy rhapsody. This goes on and on, and the eventual arrival of some faster music came too late to balance the movement. Eric Berlin plays with fine control and tone.

With the double violin concerto Unforgettable, we have a return to form. The title seem rather pretentious, even when the composer tells us it ‘is more imbued with irony than any other musical references’. The two soloists are throughout more colleagues than rivals. In the opening movement they duet over what are rightly called Changing Landscapes, constantly changing scenery which varies in mood and speed. The second movement, Leapfrogging, finds them jumping over one another in a way which is basically playful, though with some darker moments and a hint of melancholy. The finale, Ballade, is rhapsodic and jazzy, but more successful than the corresponding movement of True Colors, partly because it is half the length. The two soloists are well matched, play with a sweet tone and strike sparks off each other.

David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony orchestra supports these varied soloists with confidence and the performances have been well prepared. The recording is admirably clear and sustains the climaxes without congestion. The sleevenote is helpful but in English only. This trio of concertos comes in Naxos’s invaluable American Classics series. Are these works classics? I don’t know, but at the Naxos price, you can afford to take a punt. Now, what about that second violin concerto?

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Gary Higginson



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