These performances of what are termed “early chamber works” of Jennifer Higdon reveal the composer’s subtle and popularly lyrical treatment of themes and motifs. Her arrangement for strings of the hymn Amazing Grace is typical of her approach: after the statement of theme, the music develops polyphonically, with cello playing a deft countermelody, and eventually there is an acceleration (followed by a deceleration) of tempo. As usual, Higdon does not overstay her welcome, thus she wraps things up in under five minutes. The Sky Quartet (1997–2000), inspired by “the beauty and immensity of the sky in the Western part of the United States,” begins with a theme that, although original, has some of the earmarks of American Indian music, and yet again she develops her themes quickly in highly original and unexpected directions. By two minutes into the first movement (titled “Sky Rising”), the music has become quite complex indeed, which Higdon then leavens with some ostinato string playing on a single repeated rhythm for a few bars. The end of the music disappears into the stratosphere on the lead violin (played here by Kate Ransom). The second and longest movement, “Blue Sky,” features a lovely but elusive melody, an interesting subsidiary theme, and a very involved development section. (To me, personally, the music did not evoke “blueness,” but that was just my own feeling, possibly conditioned by the complexity of the string writing.) It would have been easy for Higdon to produce a “musical storm” in “Fury” that sounded predictable, but that is not her way, and so the music has a stringently bitonal profile—a storm coming from two fronts, as it were. “Grinding” triplets make for a pretty turgid storm, in fact, which ends with a strong upward sweep of the violins. The last movement, “Immense Sky,” is yet another well-conceived and musically challenging piece, in this case with a relaxed central section offsetting the more complex opening and closing: yet again, it sounds in places as if based on Native American music.
Higdon’s Viola Sonata is one of her very first pieces, written in 1990 when she was still a graduate student. In the liner notes, she admits being influenced by the Hindemith and Clarke sonatas as well as “some of the flute music that I have played (the Prokofiev Sonata and the Copland Duo).” I was, however, very deeply impressed by the first movement in particular; despite its harmonic similarities to Hindemith and Prokofiev, which have tended to dissipate in her later music, her discursive musical mind moves and shifts the thematic material around in fascinating ways. A feature of this Sonata that recurs in her later music are the unusual rhythmic shifts. These are, naturally, more evident in the second movement (“Declamatory”), yet oddly, I felt this particular movement was the most derivative and least original piece on the CD. I also felt that it lacked the spirit of communication: despite its technical cleverness, it doesn’t really say anything. But even a great composer is entitled to do so when young; early Beethoven sounds so much like Mozart that unknowing auditors often confuse the two.
Dark Wood for violin, cello, piano, and bassoon (2000) is a tremendously atmospheric piece, to my ears even more so than the Sky Quartet. Part of this is undoubtedly due to Higdon’s use of the bassoon in an almost percussive manner, complementing pizzicato strings in the beginning, then swirling around them. Absolutely nothing in this music is predictable; in fact, I thought this the most surprising and inventive piece on the entire disc. Each instrument, it seems, is working both together with the others and also independently; the musical lines for each instrument almost sound discrete and individual, their interaction dependent (or so it seems) on the sudden bursts of energy one experiences as the music morphs and changes. In this way, Dark Wood almost sounds like what jazz musicians would call a “chase chorus,” except, of course, that everything here is written out in advance. The starts, stops, and spurts of which the musical progression is comprised keep the listener off-balance, waiting for the next moment to discover where and how the music is going. It’s a splendid piece, splendidly played.
This disc ends with the earliest piece, the 1988 String Trio. Oddly enough, I found this piece closer to Higdon’s mature style than the 1990 Viola Sonata, not least in the surprising ways in which she assembles, juxtaposes, and develops her material. As with the Sky Quartet and Dark Wood, very little is what you would term “predictable,” which is to say following prescribed patterns, though there were a few moments here and there that, unusually for Higdon, went on a bit longer than I would have liked. Once again, the members of the Serafin Quartet (here with Tim Schwarz playing lead violin instead of Kate Ransom) rise to the occasion with their lyrical yet impassioned interpretation.
After so many reviews of Naxos releases in which I’ve complained of their swamping the musicians and singers in a sea of reverberation, I’m thrilled to say that this release lacks that sound. The sonic profile is crisp and clear, the performances having been recorded at the Gore Recital Hall of the University of Delaware, engineered by Andreas K. Meyer. Indeed, the clarity of the sound is just as good here as on the Serafin Quartet’s Centaur release, which leads me to believe that perhaps Naxos does not add the sonic goo to master tapes that they acquire for release. All in all, this is an outstanding release and one worth adding to your Higdon collection.
Intriguing Modern Chamber MusicMarch 16, 2014By Henry S. (Springfield, VA)See All My Reviews"If you want consistent structure and predictability in your music, look elsewhere. However, if you are not afraid of imaginative and innovative modern chamber music, this world premiere disk is for you. Jennifer Higdon's compositions may be somewhat difficult to categorize, but that's part of her appeal. On this very nice Naxos disk, she demonstrates several compositional approaches and instrumentation strategies. A gentle 'Higdonesque' take on the traditional Amazing Grace for string quartet acts as an effective overture to the entire recording, followed by a strikingly original work entitled Sky Quartet. Shifting rhythms and tempos, occasional use of dissonance (highly effective in my view) and intensely colorful, melodic musical essays make for a most fascinating string quartet, which has programmatic movement titles to assist in associating each section with the composer's affinity for the immensity of nature. This is followed by two somewhat unusual compositions, an intense viola/piano sonata and a playful bassoon trio (bassoon, violin, cello). Rounding out the recording is Ms. Higdon's String Trio from 1988, a thoughtful and generally introspective piece lasting 18 minutes in one movement. The artists performing the various works described here are absolutely class- the Serafin String Quartet, pianist Charles Abramovic, and bassoonist Eric Stromberg. I hope my brief and general discussion of the recording's contents will interest others in sampling what is undoubtedly some of the most intriguing, imaginative American chamber music you are going to encounter these days. I think that repeated listening will undoubtedly lead to a deepening appreciation of Jennifer Higdon as one of this country's foremost current composers. Recommended."Report Abuse
Some Cool StuffOctober 1, 2013By Joe S. See All My Reviews"When I put on the new album of Jennifer Higdons early chamber works, I was excited. These pieces hadnt been recorded yet, and I was curious to hear some of the venerated Higdons humbler, less-polished beginnings. Reading that Serafin String Quartet had an ongoing collaboration with Higdon meant to me that I was going to hear authoritative interpretations and some really great performances. Amazing Grace was a really shaky start. The quartet played this short arrangement/composition of the tune really well and the engineering was superb and clean, its just that I couldnt get into it. The piece sounded like a really great grad student piece. I know its an arrangement from a choir piece, and I could see audiences really liking it and its accessibility, but it just didnt do it for me. Maybe Ive been spoiled by listening to Ben Johnstons String Quartet #4 too much- but I feel like with the grounding of the tune, you could do a lot more. I feared that maybe the pieces on this album were unrecorded for a reason. Sky Quartet should have started this album. After this review, this will most likely be the piece on this album I keep listening to. Theres so much more going on, and its a really engaging piece. There are really interesting cadences and some great string-writing. The third movement, Fury, stood out to me as sounding amazing and wild. Higdon was clearly studying Bartoks quartets, and you cant blame her for it, but she manages to get out of his harmonic shadow and into her own place. I was hoping for a few more extended techniques here and there, but I guess it wasnt her scene when she wrote it. Sonata for Viola and Piano was very well-done. This is one of the earliest pieces on the album, but it doesnt come off that way. Theres a point of arrival in the first movement where the viola and piano trade roles, with the piano playing the violas original opening melody, thats especially compelling. The piece stays away from just low shredding on the viola, which I appreciated as well. Dark Wood, a quartet for the unusual quartet of violin, cello, bassoon, and piano was very successful. I especially liked the color the violin contributed, even though the piece is a bassoon-feature. The pointillistic rhythm is invigorating, and theres nothing else like it on the album. You can hear the parallels between this piece and her more-prominent-and-recent Zaka written for eighth blackbirds instrumentation. String Trio was interesting. Higdons album note where she expressed reservations about writing this piece because of its limited instrumentation were very informative and humanizing for me as a listener, and you could almost hear her wrestling with herself in this piece. The last cadence is weird and questioning, a kind of touch that I wish hadnt faded out in her more recent works."Report Abuse
Music full of promiseAugust 22, 2013By Ralph Graves (Hood, VA)See All My Reviews"In this collection of early chamber works, one can hear hints of the composer Jennifer Higdon would become -- and the amazing amount of talent she already possessed. <br />
Amazing Grace (written when Higdon was 24) breaks this overly-familiar hymn into small bits and rearranges them in a kaleidoscopic fashion. Great fun, and a great way to open the program. <br />
Her String Trio (another student work), is a well-structured work, although a trifle unfocussed. The style of the work doesn't sound completely gelled. The trio sometimes leans towards the academic, before settling into Higdon's characteristic quasi-modal style towards the end. <br />
Bassoonist Eric Stomberg admirably performs Dark Wood, a fast-moving work for bassoon and piano trio. This engaging work full of energy that casts the bassoon not as a clown, or as a mournful crooner, but as an agile and aggressive solo instrument. <br />
Higdon's Sonata for Viola and Piano lets the viola sing in the first movement, and contrapuntally interact with the piano in the second, trading ideas back and forth. The Sky Quartet evokes the grandeur of the Western sky (which inspired its composition). Elegiac and expansive, the quartet is definitely a work of a composer in command of her material."Report Abuse