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Gernot Wolfgang: Short Stories

Wolfgang / Farmer / Abondolo
Release Date: 02/08/2011 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1248   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gernot Wolfgang
Performer:  Nico AbondoloJudith FarmerGernot WolfgangJoanne Pearce Martin,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WOLFGANG Short Stories Judith Farmer (bn); Nico Abondolo (db); Joanne Pearce Martin (pn, theremin); Gloria Cheng, Bryan Pezzone (pn); Gernot Wolfgang (syn); Teresa Stanislav, Sara Perkins (vn); Brian Dembow (va) ALBANY TROY1248 (65:52)

It is always worthwhile guessing the background of a composer while listening to his or her music cold. Throughout this eclectic gathering of Austrian-born Gernot Wolfgang’ s recent works, I kept thinking that for all the invention and talent on display his music would work Read more better as a soundtrack, rather than isolated recital. And lo and behold Wolfgang graduated from the Scoring for Motion Pictures and TV program and works actively in those media. In fact more relevantly he curated a concert series of chamber music by film and TV composers. So this is what we have here, on an album subtitled More Groove-Orientated Chamber Music.

Groovy could almost describe the first track, Low Agenda (2007), with the contrabass’ s jazzy pizzicato beat, complementing the smoky, saxophone-style writing for the bassoon. It is a fitting tribute to saxophonist Michael Brecker, and acts as an instrumental showpiece, although Wolfgang allows some ideas to hang in midair.

The theremin doesn’t pass my way very often, but its eerie, cheap 1950s sci-fi whistle makes Theremin’ s Journey (2009) the most shocking, disparate track here. It works very well as a soundscape, pitched against Wolfgang’s pulsating electronic sample. I rather think the flurries of piano writing here are superfluous and tend to complicate what is an evocative duel of modern electric instruments and, sci-fi aside, it remains a work best set to images rather than listened to cold. For obvious reasons (such as that propulsive electronic beat) it reminds me most of Jonny Greenwood’s shocking, masterly score for There Will be Blood. Theremin’ s Journey is very much the black sheep of this collection, which otherwise is quite conventionally scored. Set to violin and piano and viola and piano, respectively, Rolling Hills and Jagged Ridges (2007) and Quiet Time (2008) are interesting, fast-moving works, notable for their economical piano accompaniment, which works well in commenting dramatically on the flighty, virtuosic string writing. Encounters (2009) sees the return of the bassoon to this chamber idiom, with a very lyrical central movement, although elsewhere there are intriguing elements of bluegrass style. Wolfgang really explores the reaches of this undervalued solo instrument with writing that is both soulful and dramatic, so much so that the violin is almost secondary in the score. As contrast the solo piano work Still Waters (2009) is predictably, a contemplative work, but no worse for that, and it is an accessible, programmatic piece, well performed by Gloria Cheng

As though a nod to the opening, we return to a jaunty, funky use of bassoon with Three Short Stories (2000), although it is definitely less “jazz bar” than Low Agenda . The juxtaposition of viola and bassoon makes for a plangent clash of textures and ideas, and it is this three-movement piece that most resembles a unified concert work.

The playing on this whole disc is uniformly excellent, especially from Judith Farmer on bassoon, finding expressive extremes of that instrument I didn’t think possible. So can Wolfgang write good chamber music? Well, it all depends which track one picks, and the most striking item here, Theremin’ s Journey , is probably the least successful as a stand-alone work. Still Waters and Three Short Stories certainly have mileage on the concert platform, but the rest work better as experiments in tonal imagery. As a recital, then, Short Stories is a bit of a jumble. Much as I understand the need to bring together disparate works for an album, it is hard to pinpoint what Wolfgang’ s defining style is, and judging by his background, that may well be intentional. On this particular disc it is the exploration of the bassoon that dominates a group of works touching variously on electronic sampling, conventional programmatic piano writing, and jazz. Sound is bright and clear, notes informative and to the point, making this another fine piece of work from Albany.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield


This appears to be only the second CD devoted entirely to the 'concert' music of Austrian composer Gernot Wolfgang. The first was released in 2006, also by Albany (TROY 854), and was warmly received by critics. Wolfgang is heavily involved in jazz and film music, which is probably why this release carries the trendy subtitle, "More groove-oriented chamber music". Currently working as a composer, arranger and orchestrator of film and TV music, Wolfgang is also guitarist with an Austrian jazz group, and in the nineties was lecturer in Jazz Composition and Harmony at Graz University.

Unsurprisingly, then, the disc opens on an overtly jazzy note with Low Agenda for bassoon and contrabass. The liner-notes, presumably by Wolfgang, state that "a groove is present throughout", and that the "C section of the theme is rock-oriented". Such assertions may put off more listeners than they attract, but the work lasts less than four minutes and has several attractive passages for both instrumentalists.

Rolling Hills and Jagged Ridges is the finest work on the disc. Its inspiration is the imaginary landscape of the title, which begins and ends enveloped in mist, with an impressive view of the rugged landscape in between. The music for violin is particularly inventive, with a recurring 'Hills' theme and imaginative use of silence and plucking, and even a Bach-like cadenza. As the mists descend towards the end of the piece, there is time for once last, quick flourish. After that comes another appealing duo, Quiet Time, this time for reflectively rhapsodic viola and restrainedly resonant piano.

Encounters is the fourth and final work in a series Wolfgang composed for bassoon in duet with a stringed instrument (three are on this CD), this time paired with the violin. There are three sections, the outer two lively and quirky in nature and showcasing more exotic instrumental effects like chopping and multiphonics, whilst the middle movement, 'The Abstract Truth', sounds appropriately like a mild-mannered philosophical debate between soloists.

Three Short Stories was written significantly earlier than the other works on the disc; this time the bassoon takes up with the viola. The first Story is a twitchy frolic entitled 'Uncle Bebop' which is naturally rather jazzy, though not in a superficial way. 'Rays of Light' is slower and more plaintive - overcast rather than sunny - and there is little duetting as such. The final Story is called 'Latin Dance', which it technically is, though through the medium of bassoon and viola it tries hard not to be - without loss of interest. There is a humorous fake ending to the work. Still Waters is a contemplative piece for solo piano, described by pianist Gloria Cheng as "Schoenberg meets Bill Evans". The music portrays a forest lake whose otherwise tranquil surface is disturbed from time to time by animal or plant movement.

All the music so far has been reasonably 'normal' - accessible, generally tonal, melodic, for orthodox instruments; but Theremin's Journey is quite different. True, there is a piano - which plays bluesy, filmic, generally quite unmemorable music - but add in the theremin and pre-recorded electronics and the listener is off on a bizarre jazz meets sci-fi meets film-pop journey. The high-pitched spooky whine of the theremin is unmistakable, and unforgettable in small doses, as here; the work was in fact commissioned by Joanne Pearce Martin, who plays both theremin and piano. This track actually carries a 'health' warning on the cover: "Crackles are part of the electronic track and are intentional: the CD is not defective!" As it happens, the crackling is not particularly noticeable, and in general the electronics are atmospheric and additive in combination with the theremin. But twice Wolfgang loses all sense of decorum, as the computer programming lapses briefly into Euro-pop electro-beats - which Wolfgang calls "groove-oriented climaxes", apparently inspired by a 1970s Miles Davies - exacerbated by lazy jazz clichés in the piano writing. Nevertheless, the first and last two or three minutes at least of the 'journey' are really quite fascinating musically.

In fact, for a disc in which, according to the composer himself, "rhythms (grooves) from musical styles such as jazz, rock and roll, pop, world music and electronics play important roles" in the music, this is really rather an attractive prospect. The soloists all give committed performances, Brian Dembow's viola in particular, and the sound quality is very good.

-- Byzantion, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Low Agenda by Gernot Wolfgang
Performer:  Nico Abondolo (Double Bass), Judith Farmer (Bassoon)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Theremin's Journey by Gernot Wolfgang
Performer:  Gernot Wolfgang (Electronic Media), Joanne Pearce Martin (Theremin)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Rolling Hills & Jagged Ridges by Gernot Wolfgang
Performer:  Bryan Pezzone (Piano), Tereza Stanislav (Violin)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Quiet Time by Gernot Wolfgang
Performer:  Joanne Pearce Martin (Piano), Brian Dembow (Viola)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Encounters by Gernot Wolfgang
Performer:  Judith Farmer (Bassoon), Sara Parkins (Violin)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Still Waters by Gernot Wolfgang
Performer:  Gloria Cheng (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Three Short Stories by Gernot Wolfgang
Performer:  Judith Farmer (Bassoon), Brian Dembow (Viola)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

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