Classical CD Reviews
“Stony Brook Soundings, Vol. One” = WEYMOUTH: in (all) the time we have left; DUYKERS: Glass Blue Cleft; KAILA: Kellojen kumarrus (The Bells Bow Down); DRUCKER: Four Sonnets by Shakespeare; GOLDSTEIN: Quintet for Alto Sax and Str. Quartet – Bridge
Published on June 23, 2010
“Stony Brook Soundings, Vol. One” = DANIEL A. WEYMOUTH: in (all) the time we have left; MAX GITECK DUYKERS: Glass Blue Cleft; ILARI KAILA: Kellojen kumarrus (The Bells Bow Down); EUGENE DRUCKER: Four Sonnets by Shakespeare; PERRY GOLDSTEIN: Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet – Escher String Quartet / Oscar Espina Ruiz, clarinet / Jacob Rhodebeck, piano / Andrew Nolen, bass-baritone / Kenneth Tse, saxophone – Bridge 9318, 67:39 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
This recording enshrines chamber music with string quartet written by faculty members of Stony Brook University in New York. The Department of Music is young (founded in the mid-60s) as music departments go, but it is committed to the support and sponsoring of new music in America and on the evidence of this recording, is itself responsible for generating significant contributions to new music.
Daniel Weymouth, former chair of the Music Department, wrote his in (all) the time we have left as a tribute to his colleague on the faculty, John Lessard. It quotes from Lessard’s work, which we of course don’t have to know to savor the piece. It begins with hectic, stabbing figures for strings and clarinet playing in their highest register, pained music that gives way to a calm closing section. According to Weymouth, he’s slowed down the ending so we can hear the “mercurial” nature of Lessard’s music, but the ending has not a mercurial but an elegiac quality to it that serves its function as tribute to a departed colleague.
Kllojen kumarrus by Finnish native Ilari Kaila is another tribute, this one to the young pianist Hanna Sarvala, who studied at Kaila’s alma mater, the Sibelius Academy. It begins with a motive that’s quietly repeated again and again by the string quartet with slight variations until the piano enters with a bell-like motive. The two motives are varied and compete with each other until they reach a wrenching climax, after which the music subsides, dominated by the bell-like utterances. A different but equally affecting musical portrait-cum-tribute.
Written in three movements designed to have a cumulative effect, Max Duyker’s Glass Blue Cleft for string quartet begins with a spiky, minimalist-inspired movement called Glass, which is as edgy as splintered glass. It’s sort of Bartók-meets-Philip Glass. The second movement, as you might have guessed, is Blue. Its coloration is dark blue and reminiscent of Bartók’s night music–evoking slow movements. Blue provides the contrast and respite that much contemporary music seems to lack. The last movement, Cleft, is supposed to be a kind of synthesis of the first two movements: it “provides a sonic stage on which the transformations wrought by the interactions of slivers and warmth in the first two movements become manifest in fissure that provides, in Duyker’s words, ‘a new context.’” Whatever. I don’t really hear the kind of development spelled out in this pompous pronouncement, or maybe I just don’t understand it, but Cleft is an effective close to the work, bright and spunky in the manner of Michael Torke though with a somewhat more serious demeanor than his music often has.
Then for something not completely different but different enough to add spice to this program: Perry Goldstein’s Quintet is a blues-and-jazz inflected piece that pays homage to the pop-cultural influences in contemporary music. Like a mini-concerto, it has a cadenza for the sax in its singing middle movement. The last movement returns to the bright bounciness of the first. Marked “Dancing, yet driving,” it sounds like Paul Creston with overtones of Jacques Loussier but with a more contemporary edge to it. A neat piece.
Perhaps the most familiar name on the program is Eugene Drucker, founder of the celebrated Emerson Quartet, whose members have been on the faculty at Stony Brook since 2002. For me, his setting of four Shakespeare sonnets is the least distinguished work on the program. If you’re going to set these thrice-familiar poems (including “When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes” and “That time of year thou mayst in me behold”), you have to do something pretty fresh and interesting with them. Unfortunately, Drucker turns out a piece that sounds like warmed-over Schoenberg from his late Expressionist phase, and how this neurotic style of composition can ever hope to capture all the nuances of literary language has always baffled me. The darker passages in the poems don’t sound materially different from the sunnier ones in Drucker’s treatment, at least to my ears. The performance by the Escher Quartet and bass-baritone Andrew Nolen are as polished as all of the performances on the disc, however.
The Escher Quartet has the full measure of the contemporary string quartet idiom, whether it’s grinding out fortissimo double- and triple-stops or producing eerie yet diaphanous harmonics. Their musical partners are equally adept in music that must often be pretty daunting. The recording, too, is very fine, with real immediacy but enough sense of the hall to make that you-are-there impression even more palpable. One caveat: if you start listening at your typical level, you may have to cut back on the volume or the treble or both to avoid a painful experience with the splintery sounds of clarinet and strings playing staccato at the top of their range. Other than that (and the one less-than-inspired bit on the disc) I have no complaints about this surprisingly varied program.