Would it seem as though I’m quibbling were I to mention that the first thing that one hears on an album subtitled Chamber Music for Strings is a work performed on solo piano? OK, I shall not quibble, since the piano does have strings after all, and besides, the listener is afforded an opportunity to hear a talented composer, apparently not himself a string player, perform his own music. Carson Cooman studied with James Willey, the subject of my interview elsewhere in this issue, along with Bernard Rands, Judith Weir, and Alan Fletcher. He is an active concert organist, for whom a good 130 works have been written, and he also writes articles for various music publications, particularly this one. So I have the duty to review the music by one of my colleagues on the Fanfare roster, but fortunately this duty has proven to be a most pleasant one. Cooman is exceedingly prolific, his opus numbers running well into the 800s. This has, perhaps, been made possible by the relative brevity of his works. All but two of the works on this CD, at least, come in at well under 10 minutes each.
A Trip to the Sky is a work where the performer has significant input, being allowed to play the nine modules of the work in any “order, combination, or manner.” The sonorities of the note D and its dominant A seem to predominate as the harmonic underpinnings of this work, but there are significant excursions into other tonal regions. Trills and dissonant block chords are interspersed throughout to good effect. Since the performer is in this case the composer, who is selecting the order of the modules and other variables from his composer’s perspective, it would have been an interesting exercise to include an additional rendition of this work by another performer.
Schumann Serenade (2007) has little to do with Robert (briefly quoting only a part of his “Der Dichter spricht”). Rather, its name is drawn primarily from Ford and Susan Schumann, the dedicatees, although the work was written for the Rosetta Trio. The work begins with a slow introduction in which the basic material of the piece is presented. A faster-flowing section follows that leads to a dancing scherzo. A more developed version of the opening material is recapitulated, and a quiet coda with a downward glissando in the cello ends the work.
Cooman’s Quartet for Piano and Strings is subtitled “A Sea Liturgy.” In this single-movement work, the composer has attempted to conjure up “an imagined set of spiritual rituals,” suggesting the sequence of “Processional,” “Ritornello,” “Invocation,” “Offering,” “Baptism,” “Rebirth,” and “Recessional.” His inspiration for the work came from the oceanscapes found around Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. After some vigorous opening chords centered on the tonality of E, a rich harmonic landscape is painted, involving string harmonics and a warmly lyrical discourse among the instruments. “Offering” is a faster and more jubilant reiteration of “Invocation,” where its prayerful melodies are transformed into an offering for the sea. A return of “Ritornello” (yes, that’s redundant, but “Ritornello” was heard once before this!) leads to “Baptism,” in which heterophonic melodies are drawn from a new foundational pitch of D. “Rebirth” is a dancing development of “Baptism,” dissonances transforming into chords of unalloyed joy. “Recessional” emerges from this glow, and fades away reverently. This is joyous and uplifting music of the first order.
Estampie, named after the medieval instrumental dance form associated with the trouvères, is composed for two violins. It begins with a slow introduction, in which melodic material is presented accompanied by open-string drones. This shortly gives way to driving and energetic material centered on G and D, with constantly shifting pulse and meter. The work ends quietly, much as it began. Tombeau-Aria is an elegiac work written in memory of noted American composer Meyer Kupferman. The work is an aria, carried primarily by the first violin, who explores a fixed-position 12-note chord over moving chords in the viola and cello. This work is much less tonally focused than is, for example, the Piano Quartet.
Cavatina, was also written in memory of an American composer, in this case Donald Erb (1927–2008), whom I knew when he taught at Indiana University. Scored for viola and piano, it is dedicated to Sarah Darling and Jeffrey Grossman, who perform it with great sensitivity here. Mournful lines in the viola are interrupted by rather dissonant outbursts in the piano, as if some kind of inner struggle is being portrayed. The work ends with both piano and viola fading into the distance.
Four Aphoristic Inventions for string quartet is dedicated to composer Elliott Gyger. Its brief movements include “Disparate Conversation” (somber and slow), “Mountain Climber” (motoric and fortissimo), “Wishing Well” (ethereal and static), and “Guillotine,” in which the viola, sentenced to death, is subjected to a march to the scaffold and—well, then, the guillotine does its job. Is this Cooman’s commentary on the viola itself, or perhaps all those viola jokes floating around? The following work, Planctus, is scored for solo viola. It is a rather simple song, not so much a lament as the title would suggest, but wistful.
The CD closes with Cooman’s Viola Quintet, “Unquiet Parables,” a three-movement work based on the same basic musical material, which begins with dissonant cadential figuration centered on A?, and eventually extended to incorporate a chord from perfect fifths one semitone apart. Its irregular phrase lengths and cadences impart a distinctive sound to the work, which is one of the more introspective in this recital.
All of the performances, largely by Slovakian musicians from Bratislava, are committed and first-rate. With impeccable intonation and sensitive phrasing, these performers have presented this music in the best possible light, providing a testimonial to Cooman’s substantial compositional gifts. The composer’s style shifts in interesting ways from piece to piece, but he has convinced me of his talent in every single one of the nine works included herein. Let’s see—at the rate of nine works per CD, we ought to be able to expect approximately 99 more CDs from this composer in order to have his complete works in hand, and yours truly will be glad to review each and every one of them if and when they should appear.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
With this release MSR Classics join a growing list of independent labels recording the music of American composer Carson Cooman: this is the fourteenth in all dedicated solely to his works, and Cooman is still not even 30. Many previous releases have been reviewed, generally warmly, on MusicWeb International.
If such a quantity of recordings appears overkill for an 'obscure' living composer, it isn't - Cooman's obscurity has to do with the effete priorities of contemporary society, not with his music. His works evince a vivid combination of inspired mellifluousness, emotional excitement and creative expressiveness.
As it happens, Cooman is one of the most prolific composers of all time. The newest work on this disc is the title piece,
A Trip to the Sky, published as his opus 857. But that was over a year ago - the latest piece to be listed on Cooman's website at the time of writing is a five-minute
Prelude and Fugue for organ - op.913! In fact he has been publishing a new work at the incredible rate of more than one a week for sixteen years. Admittedly, many are only two, three, four minutes in length, but there are a great number over ten minutes. Such prolific production also reflects enormous breadth. He has written for virtually every solo instrument and every combination of two or more instruments. This amounts to a mind-boggling fertility and application.
The CD opens with the intrigue of
A Trip to the Sky. Though
performed here by Cooman himself on the piano, the work is described as being for "any instrument or combination of instruments": the score must make for interesting viewing! The piece ends dramatically, yet need not do - another quirk of the score is that it consists of 9 sections which may be played "in any order, combination or manner". From this it might be tempting to think that Cooman is one of "those experimentalists" - but whatever ideas, fanciful or otherwise, may lie behind any given work, what really counts is what the score actually sounds like in performance. In that regard Cooman is unfailingly communicative. His music is at least as pleasing to the 'general ear' as it is intellectually stimulating.
Schumann Serenade, the second track, immediately confirms this.
A good deal of the music on this strings-oriented disc, such as the
Planctus and the
Cavatina, is fairly slow, contemplative and atmospheric. This usefully gives the listener more time to marvel at Cooman's imagination: the sceptic will find no effects for the sake of effect here. The two longest works - the
Piano Quartet and the
Viola Quintet - are probably the finest, but it is also fair to say that every item on the disc stands up very well to repeated hearing. Hearing this music, all of which Cooman wrote in his 20s - together with more than 800 other published works, remember - the listener can only begin to wonder what Cooman will have achieved musically in another twenty years!
Estampie and the
Tombeau-Aria have been previously recorded. Sound quality is almost as good as it gets. The only unwanted noise comes from the violist's inhalations in
Planctus. The balance between soloists is likewise superb. All the performers, most of whom are leading Slovakian musicians, sound at their best. The booklet gives brief biographies of everyone, as well as a more technical description by Cooman of each work.
Planctus, for viola, Op. 665by Carson P. Cooman Performer:
Sarah Darling (Viola)
Period: Contemporary Written: 2005 Date of Recording: 06/09/2010 Venue: Futura Productions, Roslindale, MA Length: 5 Minutes 9 Secs.