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Thomas SIMAKU (b. 1958)
Catena I – Piano (2019) [12:47]
String Quartet No. 5 (2015) [16:34]
L’image oubliée d’après Debussy – Piano (2018) [7:08]
con-ri-sonanza – Piano Quintet (2018) [12:59]
Hommage à Kurtág – Piano (2011) [7:47]
String Quartet No. 4 (2010/2011) [22:23]
Joseph Houston (piano), Quatuor Diotima
rec. December 2019, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, York, UK
BIS BIS-2449 SACD [81:15]

Two discs entirely devoted to Thomas Simaku’s music have already appeared on Naxos, and have been reviewed on this site (here and here). No need, then, for his curriculum vitae in a review of this brand-new disc with some of his recent output, spanning about ten years of his composing activity.

The earliest work here is the String Quartet No. 4 completed in 2011, written for and dedicated to the Quatuor Diotima. This fairly substantial piece of music is laid-out in six movements, although this needs some explanation. The first two movements, while fairly similar in shape, differ in character and mood. Both have an arch form of sorts: a slow introduction, leading into a somewhat more developed main section, is followed by a shorter restatement of the opening. The character of the main sections, however, is rather strongly different. The main section of the second movement is some kind of pizzicato-led folk dance. The central axle of the piece is the third movement Lento assai, framed by two highly energetic and dynamic interludes. The final movement, for all its variety, might well be experienced as a sort of summing-up of the whole piece, whereas the music eventually erupts in a brutal noisy sound before “glimpses of natural harmonics in their higher register bring the whole work to an end” (the composer’s words).

Each of the various pieces for piano has a different intent behind it. L’image oubliée d’après Debussy is part of a collective work. A number of composers were asked to choose a piece by Debussy, quote it for a minute or so, and continue in their own style. Simaku chose the first of Images (oubliées), which were published well after Debussy’s death. His development of Debussy’s material is principally based on two elements heard in the Frenchman’s piece that eventually assert themselves as building blocks for what actually amounts to an étude in all but the name. Hommage à Kurtág does not seem to have been written for any particular occasion, so it is really meant as a homage to an important composer of our times. The piece is based on G and A taken from Kurtág’s name; the two notes remain present throughout the piece in one guise or another.

The third piano piece recorded here again fairly substantial. As implied by the title, Catena I is a chain of five movements. “The work as a whole can be seen and heard as a concatenation of five contrasting movements played without a break.” However, as often in Simaku’s other works, there is a tightly knit network “behind the scene”, so to speak, that brings greater coherence to seemingly unrelated elements. These relationships may only become apparent through thorough analysis but, and this is very important as far as I am concerned, there is no need to be aware of the complex structures to be able to admire and appreciate such fine piano works. (Incidentally, the same may be said about all the pieces recorded here.)

Unlike its predecessor, the String Quartet No. 5 is a shorter, more compact piece of music. The composer tells us that the piece is clearly divided into two parts. The first part opens with a single gesture repeated and varied while being passed from one instrument to another. The second part has two sections, separately tracked. The first section might be regarded as the quartet’s Scherzo, for it opens rather fiercely with lacerating gestures until the music briefly pauses in a central section (Quasi angelico), bringing a short-lived calm before ending with a repeat of the opening. The second section opens as if it were to be a slow, conclusive movement; the music regains considerable impetus but eventually leads into some relatively appeased close.

The piece that gives this release its collective title, con-ri-sonanza for piano quintet, was composed as a memorial to Bill Colleran, who was a dear friend of the composer. The piece opens somewhat mysteriously over long-held, though differently ‘coloured’ notes and tolling piano. This leads into the main body of the piece in which many, if not all, of Simaku’s hallmarks are present. Sometimes there is some slight playing inside the piano but this is always tastefully done, especially at about eleven minutes into the piece when playing on the piano strings suggests some folk instrument from the Balkans, a cimbalom maybe. For all its relative brevity, con-ri-sonanza is a deeply moving piece of music that – as far as I am concerned – might well be this release’s gem.
The performances recorded in the composer’s presence are just splendid, technically assured and strongly committed. They do Simaku’s often complex but nonetheless rewarding music full justice. As already noted in earlier reviews, Simaku’s music is a hard nut to crack but, for my money, well worth cracking. Now I long to hear some of his ensemble music and his orchestral music (the Concerto for Orchestra won the first prize at the International Competition for Lutosławski’s 100th birthday). This varied and well filled release is, I think, the best way to approach Simaku’s music.
Hubert Culot

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