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Wuorinen: Scherzo, First String Quartet, Viola Variations / Serkin, Martin

Wuorinen / Serkin / Brentano String Quartet
Release Date: 03/29/2011 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559694   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Charles Wuorinen
Performer:  Peter SerkinFred SherryCurtis MacomberLois Martin,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Brentano String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 13 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

A timely and extremely well-executed collection of one earlier and three recent compositions from American Charles Wuorinen; three are world première recordings. All are expertly performed.

Naxos continues to wave the flag for contemporary American music in its 'American Classics' series. One of their latest involves this superb selection of music by the living American composer, Charles Wuorinen. He is as well known for his writings on music ( Simple Composition (ISBN-10: 0938856065 ISBN-13: 978-0938856061 is a classic) as for his compositions. Here are four of them from almost forty years. They are played with great sensitivity and perception by Peter Serkin, Lois Martin and an augmented Brentano String
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Wuorinen's output is distinguished by being prolific and varied as well as consistently good. His music is characterised by uncompromisingly modernist atonality, almost severe structural rigour and a complexity in his use of rhythm. These combine to make his music generally very approachable; perhaps not least because his voice is so distinctive.

The Scherzo for piano from 2007 is expertly played by Peter Serkin in a close, intense performance. Serkin gives the music not only to 'breathe', but also to expand its chest and flex its muscles. The result: we are persuaded of the energy which flows through and out of Wuorinen's music and - thanks to Serkin's evenness of approach - the purpose of that energy. In this performance he leads the music where it's meant to go. It's the shortest piece here but one which - typically - condenses a wealth of musical ideas. Serkin conveys them to us with just the right amount of intensity yet doesn't forget that the scherzo is essentially a lighter movement, allied to the dance. He fuses these qualities with a virtuosity that is at times quite remarkable and which was so important to the composer.

The First String Quartet dates from 1971 and is the only work on this Naxos CD previously recorded - in 2006, on Music & Arts Programs Of America (4707) with the Fine Arts String Quartet. In three short movements it, too, is heated and concentrated - almost to the point of sultriness and fragmentation. The central, slow, movement with crotchet = 60 (all Wuorinen's tempo markings appear here) is twice as long as the outer two. Yet the Brentano labour no points, nor do they inhibit the momentum of the piece. Their sound is immediate. Miking was close and the essence of the string sound has taken precedence over a more generalised 'impression'. That's good; it adds to our appreciation of Wuorinen's musical ideas. At the same time, it must introduce difficulties in performance … how much are the players working in concert; to what extent are they conveying the music's impact through separation? The balance in this case is ideal. Our overall response is to the music's urgency; it's an urgency which arises out of the innate sound made by the contributing instruments, in addition to any thematic imperative.

It's the sound of the viola, too, that drives the Viola Variations from 2008. This is played by Lois Martin, who commissioned this virtuoso piece. Wuorinen seems to be 'studying' the registers, ranges, articulations and textures of which the viola is capable. Yet after this lengthy piece is over, you are left with the feeling of having explored this melodic, decidedly 12-tone, work. This is due in no small part to Martin's sensitive playing.

By the time you get to the Second Piano Quintet also written in 2008, Wuorinen's twin emphases on drama and precision are evident. Again, structure - the alternation of both fast and slow and long and short movements - is important. Startlingly, the fast third movement is 'resumed' after the conclusion of the fourth. But this is neither trickery, nor spurious experiment. It's a thematic turn of events which adds to the sense of energy that's so usual and effective in Wuorinen's work but never in ways which suggest that the composer is 'reaching'. He's always in control. Here, again, the players are fully in touch with why and how the music works as it does.

All in all this is a most satisfying CD. The playing - both in terms of technique and interpretation - is convincing, gently persuasive and yet reserved to the degree that it needs to be in order to avoid out of place advocacy. The recording is top notch; and the booklet that walks through the works is insightful and informative. One test of a successful CD of new music is that it makes you want to explore other works by the same composer. This is just such a disc.

-- Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Scherzo by Charles Wuorinen
Performer:  Peter Serkin (Piano)
Written: 2007 
Quartet for Strings no 1 by Charles Wuorinen
Performer:  Fred Sherry (Cello), Curtis Macomber (Violin), Lois Martin (Viola),
Jesse Mills (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1971; USA 
Variations for Viola by Charles Wuorinen
Performer:  Lois Martin (Viola)
Written: 2008 
Quintet for Piano and Strings no 2 by Charles Wuorinen
Performer:  Peter Serkin (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Brentano String Quartet
Written: 2008 

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