Notes and Editorial Reviews
Four works with an infinite variety of color and contrast, performed quite convincingly by the Finisterra trio.
Piano Trios Nos. 1–4
NAXOS 8.559657 (71:48)
In a perverse way, new music, that is, contemporary classical music (or whatever pet name you would like to give it), is a non-plastic art form that exists without an audience, or, at
least, without an audience comparable to that of any popular medium. In that sense, much of new music is like trees falling in forests, music meant either to impress colleagues with its lack of capitulation to custom or music based on arcane concepts known only to theory geeks. Sometimes, therefore, new music resembles the inbred procreating with the inbred. However, there are happy exceptions to the dreary rule; here is a CD that provides a sublime compromise between the elite snobbery of academic music and the facile music of Minimalists like Philip Glass.
Daron Hagen, notable, among other accomplishments, for being the composer of no fewer than seven operas, presents his complete piano trios in this elegantly produced Naxos release. If this collection of his work is any indication of what we have in store for us in the future, he’s one for the history books and a candidate for my composers’ Hall of Fame.
Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger” (2006), is based on the hymn
Poor Wayfaring Stranger.
As we enter Hagen’s ethereally harmonious world, the music blooms into a gorgeous swell of tonalities yet retains the somber, pensive mood of the hymn. I suppose variations on hymns tend to be evocative because there is a built-in gravitas and transcendence to so many folk melodies of the religious, work, or fable variety. But few such variations on the familiar achieve the unfamiliar results that Hagen here achieves. After a more or less recognizable adaptation of the hymn, Hagen’s “Fandango” movement opens mysteriously with pizzicato against the piano and violin runs followed by a somewhat angrier version of the hymn that is insistent and raw. The fourth movement returns to the same hymn, restating a nostalgic sense of grief and loss along with a rich, tonal, romantic-sounding passage, then a restatement of the “Fandango” movement with harmonics on the strings and a quiet piano ballad. A blissful theme on violin with an underpinning of block piano chords leads to another surprising restatement of the basic hymn theme. Along the way, there’s plenty of meat for the gifted members of the trio, whose performance seems fully committed and intense. The result is richly romantic without falling into easy sentimentality. The final reiteration of the hymn is poignant, as if a voice is stilled and yet continues in perpetuity. It is important to note that there are moments in this piece that are so moving, almost breathtaking, that I can accept Ned Rorem’s homage to Hagen: “To say that Daron Hagen is a remarkable musician is to underrate him. Daron
music.” What would otherwise seem hyperbolic is apparently self-evident.
In his earlier, more academic Piano Trio No. 1, “Trio Concertante” (1984), the 20-years younger Hagen demonstrates a somewhat less self-assured approach. Unfortunately, new music over the years, especially in the 1960s through 1980s, has assembled its own vocabulary of musical clichés; besides atonality or seriality, which can be clichés in and of themselves, there is randomness, disparity, and the deliberate and often clumsy avoidance of the familiar. That even Hagen’s early work avoids many of these pitfalls is all the more impressive. An example is the movement titled “Ritornello–Romanza,” where Hagen’s tapestries and blends are, at times, transcendental. The third movement deconstructs into a jaunty dance that travels into a complex development section with strings against piano chords and a return of the opening statement from the first movement, a theme that refers to late Beethoven.
No less precocious is Hagen’s Piano Trio No. 2, “J’entends” (1986), which begins with a freewheeling skip and jump theme, then moves into a playful violin episode with bending pitches and rhythms. After a second movement, “Interior—After Degas,” inspired by a Degas painting, and the sequential scherzo, a final movement, “Quodlibet,” creates a pastiche of what has preceded it. The music erupts into the central theme, a very exciting cello solo, followed by the emulating violin with strongly bowed chords, ending mysteriously with a clock-chime fade.
The final offering is a return to Hagen’s more recent romanticism, which seems to demonstrate that Hagen is now less inclined to prove himself and more inclined to
himself. Piano Trio No. 4, “Angel Band” (2007), is also based on a hymn. The second movement begins with a violin solo with an underpinning of piano and cello morphing into a waltz on piano against harmonics on violin. The resulting haunting, ghostlike waltz with an expansive theme played on the violin proves shimmering and profound. The third movement follows with a rushing, pressed melody with roughly plucked strings and a driving tempo, then the return of the hymn theme cleverly reintroduced subterraneously. The result is jazzy and retro. The same hymn theme is reprised over a kind of walking bass with piano chords and taken over by the cello. The fifth movement is a finale with yet another restatement of the
hymn, marked by Hagen’s hallmark apotheosis of rich harmony and exalted interweaving of themes and sonorities. All in all, it’s a deeply emotional work,
emotional though not
The four trios make a neat package, two from the 1980s and two more recent works. That I prefer the more recent works is neither here nor there, since the two less-recent works show us the other side of the composer’s mind—a right brain, left brain duality that only adds to Hagen’s fascination. The fact remains that in all four trios there are spine-tingling, hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-standing-up moments of sheer astonishment, greatly enhanced by the virtuosic playing of the Finisterra Trio.
FANFARE: David Wolman
Daron Hagen is a prolific American composer whose music was until now, completely unknown to me. Educated at The Curtis Institute and at the Juilliard School, Hagen has an impressive catalogue that ranges from operas to songs, to chamber and orchestral works. He has taught on the faculties of several prestigious institutions and his music has been commissioned and performed by many of the major artists and ensembles active today.
The 2006 trio, subtitled “Wayfaring Stranger” was doubly inspired by the composer’s late brother and by a trip through the grounds of the Civil War battle of Bull Run. While passing through the historic site, the composer heard the American folk hymn and was inspired by the tune. All four movements have some element of the tune in their fabric, but it is in the beautifully lyrical second movement that the tune is most prominent. At times quasi-impressionistic, at others rather shamelessly romantic, this brief but substantial four movement work is full of contrasting colors, such that the ear is always piqued with interest. The Finisterra trio delivers a confident and well balanced performance.
The “Trio Concertant” is much more academic, composed while Hagen was a student of David Diamond. Considerably more serious than the folksy third trio, this student work is more of a challenge to the ear. More dissonant, it is obviously geared toward pleasing the jury more than the audience. Having said that, it is filled with creative gestures and original thoughts. In spite of the generally tangy harmonies and angular rhythms, there are lyrical moments of repose, and these moments are what save the work from the ivory tower.
Inspired by the last words of Nadia Boulanger (“I hear a music without beginning or end.”), Hagen’s Second Trio from 1986 is both angular and lyrical, dissonant and melodic. Even though some of the terse harmonies are a bit challenging to the ear, the use of intricate counterpoint and some wonderfully virtuoso writing for violin harmonics in the second movement make this work a fascinating listen.
Perhaps my favorite of the program here is the Fourth Trio, “Angel Band” from 2007. Based on a blue grass hymn tune and further inspired by Appalachian folk instruments, the work is a tribute to Joyce Richie Stosahl, a violinist and impresario who grew up in Kentucky during the depression and went on to have a remarkable career as a soloist and orchestral musician. Set in five movements, the work is full of folksy color while still maintaining Hagen’s unique harmonic voice. It is evident though to these ears that the older Mr. Hagen gets, the more lyrical his music becomes. Some of the melodies in this, the newest of the works presented here are downright gorgeous; a trait that sharply contrasts with the more academically oriented pieces from the 1980s.
This is one of those discs that present both challenges and delights. And it is a happy occasion to report that the Finisterra Trio perform with a deft hand. The trio is obviously committed to the music and they have a fine sense of ensemble and balance. It is difficult to comment on interpretation when these works have had little recorded exposure, so I will simply say that these are convincing performances that sell the works quite well. They definitely merit repeated listening.
As for Hagen, this is my first exposure to his music, and with all first hearings, my first tendency is to ask “do I wish to hear more?” The answer is definitely yes. If Mr. Hagen can compose music this diverse for just three instruments, it will be a very exciting adventure to hear what he does with a full orchestra. Viva Naxos for their continuing commitment to bringing out the best music, whether it be widely known or not!
-- Kevin Sutton, MusicWeb International
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