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Augusta Read THOMAS (b. 1964)
Avian Capriccio (2016) [12:07]
Plea for Peace (2017) [5:38]
Ripple Effects (2018) [5:18]
The Auditions (2019) [26:54]
Two Thoughts about the Piano (2017) [5:35]
Selene (2015, arr. Cliff Colnot) [16:47]
Your Kiss (2019) [7:44]
Axiom Brass Quintet (Avian Capriccio)
Jessica Aszodi (soprano), Yuan-Qing Yu and Ni Mei (violin), WeiJing Wang (viola), Ken Olsen (cello - Plea for Peace)
Joey Brink and Michael Solotke (carillon, 4-hands - Ripple Effects)
ICE Ensemble/Vimbayi Kaziboni (The Auditions)
Daniel Pesca (piano - Two Thoughts about the Piano)
Third Coast Percussion/Cliff Colnot (Selene)
Claire Booth (soprano), Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano - Your Kiss)
rec. November 2019, Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University and 8 November 2019, Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff UK (Your Kiss).

The Nimbus label has done well by Augusta Read Thomas in recent years, and this is the eighth title in their catalogue dedicated entirely to her work. This well-filled collection is orientated around three major scores with a further four shorter works adding value and variety, if that were needed. You can read about some of her processes and background in this interview with Robert Hugill.

Avian Capriccio is a brass quintet in three movements, each of which evokes the character of three species of birds. The first describes the acrobatics of hummingbirds with notes tumbling over each other with lively energy, and sustained notes perhaps describing their ability to maintain stillness in the air. Swans form the slow central movement, their languid motion on the water reflected in stillness in music that builds gradually, changing direction like a shift in viewpoint that seems to become airborne, though of this we can’t be entirely sure. The final movement takes us into the more funky and syncopated world of some playful canaries.

Plea for Peace is written for soprano and string quartet, the vocal soloist’s part being a wordless vocalise. This is more a micro-opera, a dramatic shape than anything with a tune that you will find yourself humming. There is a stillness in the opening that builds into something impassioned and emotionally complex, the pace of the music remaining spacious while its intensity does its work, the final moments receding once again into stillness. Ripple Effects for carillon, two-players is “a labyrinth of musical interrelationships and connections that increases in complexity as more and more players are added to this ever-expanding spiderweb of peals.” I think Thomas means ‘bells’ rather than ‘players’ but we get the idea. There is more going on here than merely a wedge shape of increasing density, but these fascinating, dramatic and slightly mournful campanological sonorities are well captured here.

The Auditions, a ballet for chamber orchestra, was composed for the distinguished and innovative Martha Graham Dance Company. The score is divided into seven sections, with odd-numbered movements titled ‘The Landscape’ with generally slower, more dream-like atmospheres. Even-numbered movements titled ‘The Room’ are more rhythmic and energetic. Without the visual elements of movement and lighting this music still delivers a powerful sense of something elusively representative. The narrative, such as it is, is outlined in the subtitles of the movements, which move from scene setting and “introducing characters of auditioning dancers”, to the final audition and closing mystical landscape. To my ears this has a ritualistic feel which gives its progression a quality of inevitability, by which I don’t mean predictability. Thomas’ precision in instrumentation and skilfully subtle use of a variety of percussion delivers a plethora of colour and transparency, and the whole thing is strikingly stimulating. It has a Stravinsky-like edge, but rarely sounds like Stravinsky.

Two Thoughts About The Piano shares the same name with a work by Elliott Carter and is a response to it. The piece shares a restless nerviness with Carter’s style, but there the comparison ends. Thomas’ idiom always has an orientation towards some kind of tonality, and the music’s virtuosity retains a kind of cadential direction throughout its single-movement duration.

Subtitled Moon Chariot Rituals in its original outing on NI6323, Selene was originally written for string and percussion quartets, but the version heard here has been arranged for woodwind nonet by Cliff Colnot. In his booklet notes, Paul Pellay writes that, “whereas the original’s strings-and-percussion configuration travelled through its 17 minutes with warm, chameleon-like hues, the present version emphasises stark, glittering colours, imparting [on] the journey a different, more boldly drawn sense of events rapidly unfolding, the lines sharper and more brightly lit”. The winds certainly offer a stronger counterpoint to the percussion, and I’m pushed to identify which version I prefer, so it’s probably better just to think of them as two related but different pieces. This is efficient and effectively scored music, but didn’t make as much an impression on me as the other pieces here. The programme concludes with Your Kiss for soprano and piano. This is a setting of a poem by e.e. Cummings, the text of which is printed in the booklet, and it is fascinating to read along with the recording to see what the composer does to illustrate and emphasise the words. It’s rarely any good longing for a nice tune when it comes to settings of this particular poet’s work.

Very well recorded and superbly performed, this is a very fine programme indeed of one of today’s leading composers. Augusta Read Thomas’ work rewards easily as much as it challenges, and is very much deserving of the attention it receives.

Dominy Clements

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