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Robert CARL (b. 1954)
White Heron, for orchestra (2012) [9:00]
What’s Underfoot, for chamber orchestra (2016) [16:13]
Rocking Chair Serenade, for string orchestra (2013) [12:36]
Symphony No 5, Land (2013) [22:02]
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 2017-19, Jordan Hall, Boston; Distler Hall, Tufts University, Somerville, USA
reviewed in stereo and SACD surround
BMOP SOUND 1076 SACD [59:52]

Robert Carl is an alumnus of Yale and the University of Chicago; he started as a student of history and only converted to music in 1974 during the centenary celebrations for another renowned Yale man, Charles Ives, whose work began to bewitch him. Daniel Morel’s note tells us that during his studies he was taught at different times by individuals such as Rochberg, Shapey and Xenakis. This quartet of fastidiously crafted works reflects the breadth of this training and seem to avoid particular styles or philosophies. Carl is sufficiently open-minded (and open hearted) to apply whatever means are required to generate each of his works’ expressive or aesthetic ends. The connecting tissue linking them all is the idea of space, be it topographical, physical or conceptual.

The perception of avian space is central to Carl’s lush orchestral poem White Heron –its broad shimmering chords and unhurried melodic lines were seemingly inspired by a visit to a rookery on one of the Florida Keys. Its hazy textures are occasionally disturbed by the less-than-piercing cries of the titular bird. If one were to imagine a soundworld located somewhere between those of Carl’s teachers Rochberg and Xenakis one might arrive at Olivier Messiaen whose aura is certainly detectable, albeit more in the static chordal passages that slow down the piece than in Carl’s more literal characterisation of birdsong. Other avian characters (the composer identifies cormorants and pelicans inter alia) fade in and out of this atmospheric vista. White Heron proves to be a slow burner of clear shape and profound grace; it authentically captures the languidity which characterises the flight of the egret.
The stately progress of What’s Underfoot for chamber orchestra implies a space which is only revealed gradually. Originally conceived as a processional, it initially projects a fragile beauty that’s airy and gossamer-light, but with the tactful entry of brass and tam-tam Carl firms up the textures layer-by-layer, a strategy which creates an illusion of steady descent for the listener. The composer’s masterly blending of wind, brass and percussion reveals his delight in timbral experimentation – in this case the glowing surfaces that emerge frequently evoke the sonic grandeur of Messiaen’s monumental Des canyons aux étoiles, although Carl is unfailingly goal-directed and more concise in his expression. As What’s Underfoot proceeds, textures which seem to have thickened imperceptibly contract. Given its chamber orchestral dimensions, the variety of timbral blends the composer achieves seems infinite. Its most powerful climax is saved until the end, although one feels more nourished and refreshed than awed. What’s Underfoot is performed with ravishing intensity by the BMOP; Carl’s exquisite detail is tellingly revealed in the disc’s SACD surround option.

An open-air quality pervades Rocking Chair Serenade for string orchestra from the outset, but it’s a more elusive ‘outdoorsiness’ than, say, Copland. The chords are elongated and distantly spaced as the piece begins. Piquant, unexpected harmonies and juxtapositions duly intercept its confident flow. The melodic line is implied by Carl’s constantly shifting and evolving harmony rather than being overtly stated; this feature of his music proves to be something of a Carl fingerprint. Beyond its half-way point the serenade seems to become rather acerbic in mood, and its sound more astringent until the rocking chair rhythm and tune materialises as if from nowhere at about 7:10. As it progresses all that came before suddenly begins to make sense. Carl is certainly an ingenious ‘designer’ of sound. At 10:02 the rocking chair tune gradually slows down; is this nostalgia, itself a painful recognition of the imperceptibly rapid passage of time? Or is that just the way this clever, deceptive piece affected this particular 59 years old listener’s exaggerated sense of melancholy?

Carl’s Symphony No 5 ‘Land’ more overtly communicates the wonders of the local topography and climate. Daniel Morel refers to the composer’s love of the American landscape; not only does the symphony’s name allude to it, but its (nine in all) subsections each have specific descriptive titles. The work incorporates a single span of music divided into five discrete episodes – it’s possibly a coincidence that this mirrors the design of possibly the most famous ‘open-air’ American symphony of all– Roy Harris’s third. Unsurprisingly however, Carl’s language is somewhat different. The opening minute of the first section, Open Prairie, consists exclusively of ominous drums and woodblock; the symphony explodes into life with the onset of a sudden climax involving sustained brass and wind chords suspended over little string arpeggi and percussion. This episode creates the work’s exhilirating momentum and morphs into High Plains, introduced by a trumpet solo which proudly displays the DNA of classic Americana; the emergent motifs are developed alongside the materials which surfaced in the first section. The music quickly assumes a more awed complexion as the vistas it suggests seem to become more mountainous. An ascending skittering figure incorporating strings and marimba increases the tension until three note brass fanfares yield to hushed string chords and the low rumble of timpani. This third section incorporates five tiny, individually named mini-episodes, contrasting the grandeur of Facing Mountains with the fragrant delights of the central Wildflower Meadow with its Debussian flutes and wind arabesques inviting listeners to literally stop and smell the roses. Here Carl introduces a tasteful aleatoric element which is absorbed seamlessly and even enhances the work’s flow. A dramatic Storm Front arises however, and swiftly gives way to a tiny collision of fanfares and rising strings entitled Scaling. A brief caesura presages a rather Sibelian fourth section, which suggests a vast, discomfiting open space before the woodblock and timpani return for the final hurrah, the Land Beyond whose tolling bells, chimes and gnomic strings most certainly evoke Carl’s early hero Ives at his most transcendent.

Despite incorporating so many distinct partitions within its twenty minute duration, Carl’s Land Symphony is paradoxically fluent and coherent. Its argument and drive combine to form a convincing arc of symphonic sound. The success of all these BMOP discs is most certainly rooted in Gil Rose’s diligent and dedicated preparation and that is most certainly evident here, as it is in the three other works included in this issue. The recording is warm and detailed; the SACD surround layer frequently draws out the detail in Carl’s skilful percussion writing. Documentation is helpful and literate. It all adds up to a fine portrait of yet another figure who deserves to be much better known on this side of the pond.

Richard Hanlon

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