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Great American Chamber Music - George Walker: String Quartets, Piano Sonata, Songs

Release Date: 01/13/2009 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1082   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  George Walker
Performer:  Frederick MoyerJames MartinGeorge Walker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Son Sonora String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 12 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WALKER String Quartets: No. 1; 1 No. 2. 1 Piano Sonata No. 4. 2 Take, O Take Those Lips Away. 3,4 Lament. 3,4 And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus. 3,4 Song without Words 4 Son Sonora Qrt; Read more class="SUPER12">1 Frederick Moyer (pn); 2 James Martin (bar); 3 George Walker (pn) 4 ALBANY TROY 1082 (71:51)

George Walker (b. 1922) is a prolific, highly honored American composer who won a 1996 Pulitzer for Lilacs for voice and orchestra. His association with Albany Records has resulted in many recordings, some of which feature him as a pianist in standard repertoire. Albany’s title for its latest Walker release, “Great American Chamber Music,” is something of a misnomer since songs and piano music don’t really qualify as chamber music. Rather, this is a George Walker sampler containing music spanning the four decades from his First String Quartet (1946) to his Fourth Piano Sonata from 1985. (While Walker’s music has real value, only a handful of American chamber pieces by Copland, Crumb, and Carter seems to me distinctive enough to be called “great.”)

Walker’s two string quartets are both well made but entirely different from each other. The early String Quartet No. 1 is an attractive, neo-Romantic work in three movements. The medium is handled with assurance and the restless, chromatic style of its outer movements is a little reminiscent of Franck. The influence of the Debussy and Ravel string quartets is also felt. Walker, along with Samuel Barber and Lukas Foss, studied with Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute. Barber’s early op. 11 Quartet in three movements contains a slow movement that was to become his best-known piece, the Adagio for Strings . The central Molto adagio of Walker’s Quartet (adapted for larger ensemble as the Lyric for Strings ) is his most often performed work and it’s easy to hear why. It’s an exquisite piece, graceful and very touching. (I wonder whether the Lento assai from Beethoven’s op. 135 served as its model.) In the work’s opening and closing movements, Walker takes more time and care than Barber does in developing his materials, and I find the Walker Quartet more satisfying than Barber’s op. 11.

The Second String Quartet from 1968 is a long, demanding four-movement work—atonal, intricate, very sensitive to timbre, and rhythmically complex. In the opening movement, one certainly hears the influence of the Second Viennese School in its dense activity and disjunct melodic gestures, though even Schoenberg’s scherzo-like movements have more humor than one finds here in the second movement. The third movement is a study in long, sustained tones punctuated by pizzicatos—interesting but bleak music that, for this listener, evokes no emotional response. I like how the slow movement is followed by an urgent, slow introduction to the finale, an agitated fugal Allegro with powerful unison passages, the most accessible of the work’s four movements.

Judging by the lack of available information about the Son Sonora Quartet, I would guess that the group might have been formed for the purpose of performing and recording these pieces. They play them with mastery and commitment.

Both movements of the Piano Sonata No. 4 alternate slow, stark sections with angular, motoric ones. Frederick Moyer’s virtuosic playing fully meets the demands of this powerful, angry-sounding work. Three songs to texts by Shakespeare, Countee Cullen, and Sir Thomas Wyatt are given strong but rather monochromatic performances by baritone James Martin. He isn’t helped by a dry acoustic in which the voice is featured too prominently. The recorded sound in the quartets and piano sonata, from other sources, is fine.

A Song without Words for solo piano is an unexpected, disarming encore. Played by the composer, it’s a short, memorable jazz tune. Walker’s performance has tenderness and humor, qualities notably absent from most of the disc’s preceding music.

The uncredited liner notes offer dry play-by-play descriptions of the events of each piece. I would have preferred to read something less technical that discussed the circumstances and inspirations behind the music or traced the path of Walker’s long, distinguished career. From this CD one would conclude that he is versatile, technically adept, and extremely skillful at changing styles, but a clear sense of his compositional voice remains elusive.

FANFARE: Paul Orgel
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 2 by George Walker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Son Sonora String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Quartet for Strings no 1 by George Walker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Son Sonora String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Sonata for Piano no 4 by George Walker
Performer:  Frederick Moyer (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1985; USA 
Lyrics: no 2, Take, o take those lips away by George Walker
Performer:  James Martin (Baritone), George Walker (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958; USA 
Lament by George Walker
Performer:  James Martin (Baritone), George Walker (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975; USA 
And wilt though leave me thus by George Walker
Performer:  James Martin (Baritone), George Walker (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2002; USA 
Song without Words by George Walker
Performer:  James Martin (Baritone), George Walker (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

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