CURRIER Verge.1 Static.2 Night Time.3 Variations on “Time and Time Again”4 • Derek Burmel (cl);1,2 Michael Boriskin (pn);1,2,4 Curtis Macomber (vn);1 Nicholas Kitchen (vn);2Read more class="ARIAL12"> Jan-Claude Velin (vn);3 Paul Lustig Dunkel (fl);2,4 Marie-Pierre Langlamet (hp);3 Wilhelmina Smith (vc)2 • KOCH 77691 (71:14)
Colleague Robert Carl’s review of string quartets by Sebastian Currier (Fanfare 29:6) whetted my appetite for this composer, but I had not managed to hear his music until this disc came along. Now I can appreciate and indeed echo Carl’s enthusiasm. Currier’s voice is a vital one. He seems to have synthesized many of the isms, techniques, and styles of the last 40 years (including neo-Romanticism and film-score mood painting) into a personal language all his own. His music is predicated on contrast, operating through the juxtaposition of disparate episodes in a mercurial and instinctive but ultimately convincing way.
Each of the four works on this disc is comprised of several short movements. Verge, a trio for violin, clarinet, and piano, opens with a prelude lasting under one minute. Consisting of rapid scale passages, this movement is designated almost too fast (although it is not too fast for Michael Boriskin, a brilliant pianist who has done as much as anyone for contemporary music). The second movement, almost too slow, has a completely contrasting atmosphere, hymn-like and contemplative. All nine movements have such instructions: almost too mechanical, almost too calm, and so on, the composer’s idea being that a line is posited by such indications which may be approached but not crossed. (Typical thinking for a composer who professedly likes to push the envelope.) Currier’s theory produces exciting and committed music-making from members of the Music from Copland House ensemble, of which Boriskin is the artistic director. Verge has been recorded by its commissioning performers, the Verdehr Trio—who else?—yet it would be hard to imagine a better performance than this one.
Night Time (1998) is a five-movement sonata (though not designated as such) for the uncommon but well-suited combination of violin and harp. In the first movement, “Dusk,” the violin sings a pensive melody over a slightly impatient rocking figure from the harp—perhaps suggesting a lullaby. Currier employs the two instruments as protagonists: the impulsive harp keeps trying to jolt the violin out of its reverie, but without much success. The movement finishes quietly, the original mood undisturbed. An effective piece it is, and inexplicably nocturnal. The second movement, “Sleepless,” acts as a scherzo: busy and suitably restless, rather like Ravel’s night moths in Miroirs. It is followed by the freely expressive “Vespers,” notable for atmospheric textures from the harp and a yearning, wide-ranging line from the violin. “Nightwind” is a piece of pure impressionism, fleet-footed and muted; while the last and longest movement, “Starlight,” brings writing of expansive and almost pictorial beauty. Currier’s writing for harp is thoroughly idiomatic in this beguiling work, making it a substantial addition to that instrument’s chamber repertoire.
In his Variations on “Time and Time Again” (2000) for flute and piano, the composer follows Britten’s example (in Lachrymae) by placing the theme at the end, rather than at the beginning. The theme Currier uses is an original piece with something of a bluesy, cocktail-hour feel. The four contrasting variations are separated by a “ticking clock” representation of time passing. A quirky coda of skittish piano figuration and single staccato notes from the flute quite literally lifts the music up into the stratosphere and silence.
At 27 minutes, the longest of these works is the prize-winning quintet Static (2003), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. (Piccolo and bass clarinet are substituted in the fifth movement.) Currier portrays static in both senses of the word: as an unchanging or repetitive state, or as the “white noise” static you might hear on a radio receiver. These two definitions form the starting point for much varied and interesting music, some of it evoking the minimalists (though by no means as static as their work can often seem), and some utilizing tone-cluster chords associated with the 1960s avant-garde. The fourth movement (of six), resonant, forms the emotional crux of the work. It presents static as timelessness, in the form of a slow, drawn out cello melody (occasionally doubled by violin, which ultimately takes the theme into higher realms), wending its placid way through a Messianesque landscape of twittering piano above and hieratic chords below. As in the other pieces, musical incidents from moment to moment are finely drawn; time may have slowed but Currier never loses focus.
Performances are first-class from all concerned—Boriskin and harpist Langlamet strike me as completely in tune with the composer’s pictorial imagination—and the recording quality is warm, clear and revealing. Currier’s writing shows a hypersensitive ear for color alongside an unerring ability to pinpoint a specific idea in musical terms. Among the many impressive discs of contemporary American chamber music currently available, this one stands out.