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First Light
Nico MUHLY (b. 1981)
Shrink (Concerto for Violin and Strings) (2019) [22:27]
Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
The Orchard (from The Screens) (1989) [7:27]
String Quartet No 3, “Mishima” (1985)
(arr. for string orchestra by Pekka Kuusisto) [17:56]
Pekka Kuusisto (violin and director)
Nico Muhly (piano)
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
rec. October 2020, Jar Kirke, Bœrum, Norway.
PENTATONE PTC5186745 [47:49]

The connection between Nico Muhly and Philip Glass became established in the mid-2000s, when Glass employed Muhly as an assistant. Muhly has absorbed the influence of minimalism but is by no means constrained by it, and the violin concerto Shrink, while possessing some of the DNA of John Adams’ Shaker Loops, represents his current pinnacle of a personal idiom that embraces a spectrum from the English renaissance to French impressionism and the textures of Ligeti.
Pekka Kuusisto describes Shrink as “Nico’s ferocious concerto for violin and strings… a concerto that not only is a creative peak for him, but also manages to present both an embrace and a challenge for the players.” There is certainly plenty of virtuoso meat in the first movement, Ninths, with the soloist leaping around over energetic ostinati from the orchestra. That John Adams influence can be heard most clearly from about 4:38 after a climactic break into softness and restless repose, the return of the higher-octane feel from the opening sounding more like a coda than a resolution. Shrink refers to diminishing intervals, and the second movement explores Sixths in a tense but quietly atmospheric space that develops and expands its chorale-like harmonies into an ever more frantic pool of activity that transitions into the third movement, Turns with a soft bed of sound from which a violin cadenza emerges. Fast ostinato rhythm is the flavour here, led by intensity from the soloist and increasing tensions from rising inflections in the orchestra. This is all very exciting and indeed involving, but even after a few listens I can’t help feeling there’s an ‘is that it?’ feeling about the end, with space for an ultimate ‘wow’ moment prematurely truncated.

Philip Glass’s The Orchard for piano and violin comes from his music for a play by Jean Genet called The Screens. This is a gentle intermezzo with echoes of Erik Satie in its piano part, over which the violin ruminates. The two parts were recorded remotely, but the final result works very well indeed. Glass’s String Quartet No 3, “Mishima” is associated with Paul Schrader’s film about Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist and “self-styled samurai”. The scoring for this film is for symphony orchestra, but with more intimate and introspective moments written for string quartet which became the stand-alone work heard here in a string orchestra arrangement by Pekka Kuusisto. Such an arrangement might arguably be seen as turning the original more reflective intention of the music somewhat on its head, but the strings of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra create their own atmosphere of soulful mystery and restrained drama, by no means distorting the effect of the original while adding their own dimensions of dynamic and colour contrast. Glass’s music is ‘pure’ enough to take on this kind of adaptation with relative ease, and fans of the original will no doubt appreciate this extension of the piece into the string orchestra repertoire.

This is a well-produced and superbly performed release, and the appearance of a brand-new violin concerto into the world deserves everyone’s attention.

Dominy Clements

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