Notes and Editorial Reviews
GULFSTREAM: American Chamber Music
Enhak?; Corinne Stillwell (vn
); Pamela Ryan (va
NAXOS 8559692 (55:08)
Rodeo Queen of Heaven.
Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano.
Sextet for Clarinet, Piano, and String Quartet
If a lot can happen in a day, think how much can happen—indeed, did happen—in the 45 years that separate Aaron Copland’s Sextet, composed in 1937, from the next earliest work on this disc, Peter Schickele’s clarinet quartet, written in 1982. A further quarter of a century then separates Schickele’s piece from Peter Lieuwen’s 2007
and Libby Larsen’s 2010
Rodeo Queen of Heaven
. Yet all of these composers and their music share some things in common beyond their American heritage.
Copland, of course is
iconic American composer. Only Charles Ives, George Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein command similar name recognition, Ives probably more for being the rugged pioneer who went where no one had gone before than for any great love or popularity of his music. It seems that at least one commonality shared by the most beloved American composers—and one would have to include on the short list Samuel Barber, William Schuman, and Roy Harris—is that they wrote music of the people and for the people, music that provides pleasure to the ear and food for the soul.
Copland’s Sextet is, of course, relatively well known and well enough represented on record that we needn’t dwell on it in detail. Originally, the work was to have been, and is, the composer’s Second Symphony. But when its technical difficulties proved problematic for the orchestral players during rehearsals, scheduled performances were canceled and Copland recast the symphony as a chamber work for clarinet, piano, and string quartet. Today, you can hear the piece in its original form, as the Symphony No. 2, titled
, or in its sextet version as presented here.
Whether it was an intentioned agenda or not, I don’t know, but the works on the disc are programmed in reverse chronological order; however, I’m taking them in this review in ascending date order. So next up, chronologically, is Schickele’s Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano. No doubt Schickele (b.1935) will be forever branded as the creator of the imaginary P. D. Q. Bach, his alter ego that led to hilarity-filled concerts and recordings of works parodying 18th- and 19th-century masters. But no matter what one might think of such musical hijinks, Schickele’s comedic genius has paid off handsomely, and, as someone once said of Liberace, he can laugh all the way to the bank.
Schickele, it turns out, is also a serious composer in his own right, and his quartet is an alternately atmospheric, moody, moving, spirited work with striking combinations of instrumental sonorities that evoke the wide-open prairie landscapes that Copland was so good at depicting, as well as the urban hubbub that Gershwin and Bernstein often conjured.
Peter Lieuwen (b.1953) is new to me. A native of the Netherlands, he grew up in New Mexico and, not unusual for composers of his generation, his music is infused with the spirit of American jazz filtered through a kind of modernist style that, while dissonant, is not determinedly atonal. It has also not been untouched by the influence of the Minimalists, though in
, from which the album takes its title, the Minimalist effects are achieved not through static repetition of small cellular units but in the way the instruments seem to join, disjoin, and rejoin in ever-changing subsets of the larger ensemble, an effect somewhat like atoms charging about, briefly clumping together in one formation, only to come unglued and be freed to reform in new combinations.
This description isn’t far off the mark, for Elisa Weber’s program note tells us that Lieuwen’s
, scored for the same ensemble of instruments—clarinet, violin, cello, and piano—as Messiaen’s
Quartet for the End of Time
to celebrate the French composer’s centennial in 2008, attempts to represent the swirling waters of the gulfstream current. Don’t worry if the music doesn’t convey that impression to you. Ultimately, all nonvocal music—and even that if you take the words away—is abstract. It may evoke feelings, moods, and various states of consciousness, but the dots on the page we call notes cannot be translated into specific graphic images. For that we have the visual arts. Let it be enough to say that the third movement of
, marked “Slow, elegiac,” is of a delicate, exquisite beauty that produces a feeling of floating in a timeless space of indescribable peacefulness. If this is the “end of time,” it’s where I’d like to be when we get there.
Rodeo Queen of Heaven
by Libby Larsen (b.1950) is both the most recently composed piece on the disc and the only one I find it difficult to wrap my head around. Some may even find the imagery that inspired the piece a bit offensive. It was on a visit to the Denver Art Museum that Larsen found herself drawn to Arthur Lopez’s eponymously titled painted wooden sculpture of the Madonna and Child dressed in full rodeo regalia. The Madonna has a gun slung over her hip and the Holy Child is clad in chaps and crowned with a cowboy hat. This struck Larsen as an important statement about “who we are and what we are becoming.” If, by that, she means we’re becoming a gun-toting society with the fashion sense of a Texas Jacks Wild West Outfitter store for drag queens, I’m outta here.
Occasionally, one smells some mild chiles and a bit of sweet Southwest barbecue sauce in Larsen’s piece, but for the most part, the music is pretty hotly spiced with sharp dissonances, punctuated by spiky, disjointed rhythms, and filled with unusual instrumental effects like pizzicato glissandos and glassy tremolos. In other words, it’s an unapologetically modernistic work that’s apt to require some perseverance to unlock its charms. It in no way, however, diminishes my positive reaction to the rest of the program.
Enhak? is a fine quartet of musicians that has made quite a name for itself, especially for its dedication to and performance of contemporary music, and it’s no wonder, for this is playing of the very highest caliber. Wonkak Kim produces a clarinet tone as buttery-smooth as any I’ve heard, beautifully balanced and blended over its entire range, with no audible breaks between registers and not a breath intake to be heard. M. Brent Williams’s violin and Jayoung Kim’s cello are equally well matched to each other and to Wonkak’s clarinet. Individually, and as an ensemble, Enhak? plays with perfect intonation and musically expressive articulation. Corinne Stillwell and Pamela Ryan add their own special flair to Enhak??s smart and classy style in a remarkably adroit performance of Copland’s tricky Sextet.
There is much to discover and enjoy on this latest entry in Naxos’s American Classics series, and I highly recommend it.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Gulfstream by Peter Lieuwen
Period: 21st Century
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