Notes and Editorial Reviews
In Eleanor’s Words.
String Quartet No. 3,
Buffy Baggott (mez);
Kuang-Hao Huang (pn);
Blava Str Qrt
CEDILLE 122 (67:30)
The first piece is based on a folk tune called
(and takes its name therefrom). This tune exists in several versions and under different titles. There is no doubting the folk side of the theme when one hears it. What impresses is the way Stacy Garrop sets it against a bleak modernist tolling (inspired perhaps by the beginning of Mahler’s “Der Abschied” from
Das Lied von der Erde
?). The original folk song dwells on a Romeo and Juliet-ish idea of love thwarted, in whatever way, by family circumstance. There is an intensity to the writing that is most involving. Expertly scored for piano trio, it moves to a fierce climax before the folk tune reappears quietly and played on harmonics by the string instruments.
The texts for
In Eleanor’s Words
are all taken from Eleanor Roosevelt’s
columns (Roosevelt wrote for newspapers from 1935 until 1962). The quirky, jaunty feel of the first song fits the subject perfectly (the strains and adventures of trying to honor a deadline). In total contrast is the sadness-infused “Are You Free,” a seven-minute meditation on social injustices. Buffy Baggott is a fine mezzo, and she brings out the sense of defeat inherent in the words (emphasized by the traipsing piano part). There is humor here, too, in the third movement, “An Anonymous Letter” (the letter only says pleasant things, something that is new to the writer), and in the ensuing “The Supreme Power,” which includes some lovely, spiky piano playing from Kuang-Hao Huang and rises to an overpowering high point as the Soviet people are warned to be wary of the U.S. The final song, “What Can One Woman Do?,” ends with an eloquent plea for understanding. After a massive, ear-shattering climax, a coda attenpts to provide some tentative answers to the questions raised. This is a touching cycle of songs that bravely tackles vital questions of responsibility, both personal and governmental, that still have vital resonance today.
Garrop’s Second String Quartet was recorded by the Maia String Quartet, also on Cedille, on a disc titled
Composers in the Loft (
Cedille 100) and reviewed by Robert Carl in
31:4. Carl identified the shadows of Bartók and Crumb in the first two movements of that piece. The Third Quartet is subtitled “Gaia,” the Greek goddess of the Earth (indeed, many people today refer to the Earth as simply Gaia). “Gaia” is also the title of the first movement (of four), which sets out the musical materials in simple but highly effective fashion. The held-breath atmosphere is most appropriate. In “Creation of Mother Earth,” Gaia emerges from chaos (harsh tremolandi usher in the most dissonant music on the disc) before creating the night sky. There is the sweetest violin melody around three minutes in. The power of Garrop’s music comes from simplicity of gesture. Life is celebrated in “Dance of the Earth,” the visceral element of the dance captured with amazing rawness by the engineers; there is tenderness here, too. The viola represents the cry of the planet itself in “Lamentation” (a musical depiction of Gaia’s distress at the hands of us humans). Mary Persin’s playing is undeniably eloquent, just as the climactic, rapier chords are undeniably powerful. There is some virtuoso playing here; ensemble is frankly awesome. The final movement, “Et in terra pax,” speaks of a desire for peace in the tenderest of terms. There is a Górecki-like sadness here as well, though, reminding the listener that this remains, as yet, a dream. The technical prowess of the players in terms of sheer control toward the incredibly delicate end is surely beyond praise, as any hint of bowshake would destroy the atmosphere. Bravo.
The booklet tells us this is the Blava Quartet’s final recording (public performances concluded in June 2010). A shame, as it was clearly a highly talented group whose dedication to contemporary music was eminently praiseworthy.
FANFARE: Colin Clarke
There's a very serious talent at work in this music by Stacy Garrop. Silver Dagger is a folk-song setting for piano trio, along similar lines to Vaughan Williams' Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, and it's extremely beautiful and quite fetchingly composed for the three instruments. In Eleanor's Words is a cycle of six songs drawn from the newspaper columns of Eleanor Roosevelt. The concept is a good one: Roosevelt's prose often approaches poetry, and her unfailing intelligence makes for texts that are worth reading on their own, and for which Garrop has found a similarly conversational musical style that fits them perfectly. The music is attractive and approachable, but not facile. There's a version for chamber orchestra that I would dearly love to hear, but it would be difficult to imagine a more affectingly sung performance than that by mezzo Buffy Baggott--and Kuang-Hao Huang accompanies beautifully.
Gaia is an ambitious string quartet in five movements lasting about 34 minutes, and only here do I feel it necessary to express a few reservations. So much contemporary music seems adrift without some sort of programmatic underpinning, and this piece is no exception. Don't get me wrong: the individual movements are effectively structured and often quite attractive. Dance of Mother Earth (silly name) is fun, and the Lamentation lives up to its title. However, the finale--...et in terra pax--really is a bit conventional, and it's also the longest movement. Somehow the various sections don't quite add up to a convincing whole, despite some excellent playing by the Biava Quartet. Still, other listeners may be more willing than I was to succumb to the music's programmatic charms. I loathed Garrop's Second Quartet "Demons and Angels", and this one strikes me as far more appealing and successful. The sonics are just great, and irrespective of any quibbles, this disc makes an excellent case for exploring more of Garrop's music.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
In Eleanor's Words by Stacy Garrop
Buffy Baggott (Mezzo Soprano),
Kuang-Hao Huang (Piano)
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