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Kevin VOLANS (b. 1949)
violin:piano (2009) [25:01]
Etude 9 (Bells for Mary)  20:20]
viola:piano (2009) [22:11]
Passi leggieri (2003) [7:47]
Waldo Alexander (violin and viola)
Jill Richards (piano)
rec. 2014, studioboerne45, Berlin ERGODOS ER20 [75:25]
Kevin Volans became well known through titles such as White Man Sleeps, but in more recent years he has removed himself from African themes. His move towards a particular kind of abstraction that eschews atonality or extreme avant-garde, and that eliminates direct subject matter is well represented in this chamber music programme. violin:piano is slow and meditative. With its use of silence and repetition, the atmosphere hints at Morton Feldman, but Volans’ intervals are more open and tonal, his dissonances more ‘leading note’ tinged, while maintaining an enigmatic feel. There is no booklet with this CD, but the inner cover has some brief notes in which we are told that “the parts are played at two different and loosely synchronised tempi, thus allowing the players to perform far apart and very softly.” Closely related material keeps a sense of inner cohesion to the music, with moments of call and response presumably something both a matter of chance, and of inevitability.
There is no information about the content of the fascinating Etude 9 (Eight Bells for Mary), other than it now stands as an in memoriam to Mary Rörich, also the dedicatee of viola:piano. An electronic ring modulator adds interesting effects to the piano sound, at times reminding us of the prepared piano strings of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, changing the upper harmonics of chords and notes, and giving strange texture to their sustain. This to my ears build the image of a lonely, windswept and desolate place, with vistas masked by mist and the traces of long absent presences the only forlorn reminders of a more verdant past. I’ve probably been watching too many dystopian movies, but hopefully you get some idea of what I mean. There is silence, but this is outweighed by actions that go beyond the static, though move with the glacial slowness of a rusty machine.
viola:piano differs from violin:piano with the players “having very disparate material, only coming together in a somewhat more traditional counterpoint over half-way through the piece.” The connection between these two works is in the repetition of phrases and silences in between, but the piano part has an agitated quality over which the viola pontificates with gentler phrases. That more ‘traditional’ section brings the instruments more together without actually turning into anything like solo over accompaniment. The piano becomes more withdrawn, and in this way the two are drawn together in closer companionship. The idea that this might only be an illusion remains, though a joint rise towards higher registers in the penultimate minutes retrospectively illustrates the symbiosis of this duo.
Passi leggieri was originally written for Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, the folk-music nature of the instrument reflected in open double-stop intervals and passages of quickly moving notes, but with moments of non-folk-like dissonance and thematic angularity that point to the composer’s voice at work. Played on the violin this will be a different effect to an actual Hardanger fiddle, but Waldo Alexander does well in giving us the slight adjustments in tuning and less ‘classical’ touch that singles out the techniques and idiom of this distinctive instrument. There is also a lonely feel to this piece in its first section, which heats up further along in sections that play a speedy variation on the previous material, giving it a more dance-like feel but avoiding any slippage into the Irish musical spirit which Volans inhabits these days – as a resident I hasten to add, not as a pub musician. The ghostly character of the quieter theme never leaves however active its contrasting material becomes, and the distant echo over the fjord has the last word.
This is a well recorded and played collection of works by Kevin Volans, and one that will intrigue the inquisitive listener. The instruments are perhaps a bit far away in the balance with some of the pieces, but I can imagine that this was a deliberate choice in music that works its effects in terms of time and a sense of distance.