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Jorge Villavicencio GROSSMAN (b. 1973)
From Afar
Siray I, for ensemble (2005) [7:35]
Partita, for solo viola (2019) [15:25]
Ludi Mutatio, for piano and electronics (2015) [21:41]
Da Lontano, for string quartet (2016) [16:58]
Talea Ensemble/James Baker
Kyle Ambrust (viola), Anna D’Errico (piano), Joshua Oxford (electronics)
Mivos Quartet
rec. 2012-2020
KAIROS 0015072KAI [61:39]

This is the first portrait disc dedicated to the perfectly formed chamber music of Jorge Villavicencio Grossman. Peruvian by birth, raised in Brazil and trained in America by the likes of John Harbison and Lukas Foss, all four pieces here prove to be well-crafted and accessible, challenging without being especially subversive. Grossmann is in his mid-forties by now; on this evidence he has a real ear for colour and an architect’s flair for unusual yet practicable structures. I note that a couple of the pieces here were recorded at Ithaca College in New York State where Grossmann currently teaches. Once again we can be grateful to the folk at Kairos Records for drawing our attention to a fine composer who seems to be far better known on the other side of the pond.

Opening the survey is the earliest work in this collection, Siray I. A miniature scored for the standard ‘Pierrot’ quintet (flute doubling alto flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano), it’s far from inaccessible. Individual parts neatly interlock in a lively, attractive arrangement whose shape and detail reflects the intricacy of the Peruvian tapestry style from which the work takes its name. It wavers between rapid sections of great detail and intricacy and more static, atmospheric music. The part-writing is expertly conceived and seems to fit most naturally under the fingers of the players. The energy of the opening bars suggests something Revueltas-like in its angular intervals and frenetic activity, but Siray I doesn’t really pan out that way. The chords at its conclusion reminded me of Schoenberg’s early chamber symphony; given the nature of the ensemble one wonders if this is intentional. The fine musicians of the Talea Ensemble are comfortably at one with this communicative music.

An interval of fourteen years separates Siray I from one of Grossman’s most recent solo pieces, the Partita written in 2019 for Kyle Armbrust, the American violist who performs it here. Its tripartite form might suggest a pared-down version of the Bachian blueprint, but Grossman’s lean, concise design incorporates music of considerable substance. The Toccata was apparently inspired by the composer’s experience of Armbrust’s performance of a Hindemith solo sonata, and in its gruff vivacity the parallels are undeniable. It yields without a break to a more potent, expressive Sarabande. The bleak close harmonies at its outset project a seriousness of intent that will be recognisable to listeners familiar with Alfred Schnittke’s masterpiece, his Viola Concerto, and Grossman’s inspiration maintains a similar level of darkness throughout. The final panel is labelled Troped Passacaglia, which references the variations Grossman interpolates within the repeated bassline. While its form is immediately recognisable, this is far more fragmentary and marginally more uncompromising than the first two movements. Armbrust gives this expertly fashioned piece a performance of dexterity and strength – revealing its extremes of lightness and heft in the process - with consummate lucidity and discretion.

Pleasing and competent as both these works are, there’s nothing in them that really leaps out of the speakers and proclaims itself as jaw-droppingly original or life-changing. However the little pieces that constitute Ludi Mutatio (Game Change) for solo piano and electronics do offer something a little different, perhaps because of the set’s unusual design, or more likely the imaginatively varied use of electronics. It’s a flexible ‘suite’ rather than a set ‘sequence’; the nine constituent pieces each fulfil either one or two of three predesignated roles: prelude, interlude or postlude. The challenge (game) for the performers is to create three consecutive sequences of one prelude, one interlude and one postlude, thus there is a gently aleatoric element for the players to negotiate. I suspect the sequence fixed here by pianist Anna D’Errico and electronics wizard Joshua Oxford works as well as any other possible solution. I like the brittle, agitated sounds in the pieces selected as Preludes here, the role of the electronics in the second of these (the fourth of the nine pieces) seems to be a rapid, off-kilter shadowing of the piano line. The first of the interludes is most compelling and rather Feldmanesque, with a synthetic drone element. The second interlude, the pivot in the whole sequence is the longest piece, an intricate, rather sad adagissimo in which it’s difficult for the listener to disentangle the electronics from the pedals. The mood is abruptly curtailed by the ingeniously puckish postlude that follows replete with amusing synthetic effects and clangorous bells. The dirge that concludes the entire sequence features some extraordinary gamelan effects which seem to literally hang in the ether. Grossman writes superbly for the piano, harnessing the instrument’s full sonic potential most effectively and matching it with striking (often literally – I suspect he likes his bells) synthetic effects. Ludi Mutatio is in consequence great fun and skilfully compiled.

The issue concludes with a splendid string quartet De Lontano whose English translation gives this Kairos disc its title, ‘From Afar’. Superficially it incorporates a structure that’s similar to Ludi Mutatio -three discrete themes are played at the start of the work; each of these are then subjected to alternating pairs of variations (Theme 1-Theme 2- Theme 3; Theme 1 Var 1- Theme 2 Var 1-Theme 3 Var 1; Theme 1 Var 2 and so on). The creepy first theme comprises a sequence of soft, delicately textured 32nd notes which in due course yields to its successor, a brutal, unison D which implodes and liberates microtonal threads. The third theme is contrastingly fragile; described by the composer as a chorale, the granulations of the strings can be heard in the sul tasto textures and harmonics that ensue. Once the listener has registered these distinctive ideas, the remainder of the quartet proceeds with remarkable clarity and even inevitability. The variations are easily linked to the original themes and the listener can relax and absorb the work in toto for what it appears to be, an extended essay in timbre and colour which is largely determined by Grossmann’s imaginative requirements for the four players to vary their projection by means of differing mutes, of metal, wood, or rubber. The rigour of the structure, the cogency of the thematic content and the sheer variety of string tone ensure that Da Lontano is both intellectually and formally convincing and a pleasure to experience. It is heard in its best light here – the playing of the American Mivos Quartet is outstanding, as is the recorded sound.

With these four works Jorge Villavicencio Grossman presents himself as a vibrant, versatile voice, an individual who clearly doesn’t subscribe to labels, movements or ‘isms’; he’s evidently an artist for whom robust technique, timbral imagination and formal ingenuity are priorities. These result in music that’s both attractive to hear and fascinating to ‘unpack’, for reviewers and enthusiastic listeners alike. It’s a characteristically enterprising Kairos issue and introduces a Latin-American figure of considerable stature and potential. The package is further enhanced by excellent recorded sound throughout; the disc is accompanied by an eminently detailed and useful booklet note, courtesy of Peter Silberman.

Richard Hanlon
Recording details
April 2012 (Siray I) and February 2020 (Partita) at Hockett Family Recital Hall, Ithaca College, New York; July 2018 at the Conservatorio Superior de Musica Joaquin Rodrigo, Valencia, Spain (Ludi Mutatio) and October 2019 at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York (Da Lontano)

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