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Moravec: Useful Knowledge / Vita Brevis & Characteristics Ensembles

Moravec / Burton / Trio Solisti / Mulligan
Release Date: 12/13/2011 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559698  
Composer:  Paul Moravec
Performer:  Amy BurtonSimon MulliganRandall ScarlataCecilia Brauer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio SolistiLa Fenice
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

MORAVEC Characteristics. Useful Knowledge. Vita Brevis Simon Mulligan (pn); Randall Scarlata (bar); La Fenice; Amy Burton (sop); Trio Solisti NAXOS 8.559698 (56: 19)

I have been following the music of Paul Moravec for about 10 years now, and I find him to be one of the most rewarding compositional voices of his generation. Now in his mid-50s, this postmodern neotonalist won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 most deservedly for a delightful piece called Tempest Fantasy Read more (available in a brilliant performance on Naxos 8.559323 that features some of the same performers heard here). This new release introduces us to three more of his fine works, all first recordings.

What appears to be the primary work is Useful Knowledge. Subtitled “A Franklin Fantasy,” it was commissioned by the American Philosophical Society in honor of the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin in 2006. The 19-minute work is scored for baritone soloist with a small mixed chamber ensemble, including glass harmonica—the instrument invented by Franklin. It appears most notably at the very beginning and again toward the end. The work, described by the composer as “subjective and fanciful,” falls into seven connected sections, with a text drawn from Franklin’s writings, both public and private. The text—not included in the booklet but available on the Naxos website—emphasizes Franklin’s metaphysical thinking, and certain lines are given added emphasis through repetition, for example, “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.” What the text reveals so interestingly is Franklin’s fusion of the utilitarian with the sacred, as indicated by the quotation just cited. But as interesting as the concept may be, the reader may well ask just what role music can be expected to play in work that deals largely with ideas, rather than with mood, emotion, drama, or sensation—the kinds of subjects that lend themselves most readily to musical interpretation. Perhaps the best answer is that music can provide a pleasing aural framework for such thoughts—one that does not compete with them, or conflict with them in any way. That is precisely what Moravec has done here, while imparting to this framework an eager, hopeful exuberance that is wholly in keeping with the selected texts. In previous works Moravec has shown a particular mastery in writing for small mixed chamber ensembles, and that mastery is fully in evidence here. The vocal contribution, rendered sensitively by Randall Scarlata, is less strikingly musical, as might be surmised in view of the content of the work, but it is not unpleasant, providing an apt vehicle for Franklin’s ideas. All in all, it is an unusual, appealing, and highly effective work.

The other vocal work is Vita Brevis , composed in 2002 for tenor and piano, but heard here in a version for soprano and piano trio. Trio Solisti has performed and recorded a good deal of Moravec’s music, and displays a deep understanding of the composer’s mode of expression. Soprano Amy Burton fulfills her role with considerable sensitivity and musicianship. Moravec’s cycle consists of five songs that, as have many such previous cycles, span the phases of life from birth to death. The unusual twist here is that the emotional journey runs from gloom to joy, rather than the opposite direction encountered more often. The poems are by Agee, Wordsworth, Dante (perhaps the weakest setting), Yeats (perhaps the most effective setting), ending with Mary Elizabeth Frye’s touching “In Remembrance.” “A Lullaby” was also set by Thomas Pasatieri in his group of three Agee poems, and it is illuminating to compare the two. Moravec writes lyrical vocal lines well suited to the voice, but they lack the strong melodic focus that might allow them to take hold more fully in the listener’s memory.

The remainder of the program is devoted to Characteristics , a group of seven solo piano pieces averaging three to four minutes each. Composed in 1996, they represent Moravec’s application of another familiar conceit, each piece attempting to capture an aspect of the character of one of his musical friends. As is typically the case with such works, the acuteness of his perceptions is chiefly of interest to those friends and their acquaintances. But for the majority of listeners, they are simply seven piano preludes. Moravec is at his most inventive and distinctive in his fast music, and that is clearly the case here. He creates patterns in perpetual motion that have a lightness and airiness that are easily identifiable as his and invariably appealing. But this is not to find fault with the others—just that they don’t create quite as immediate an impact. As a group, they embrace a varied range of expression—delicate, dreamy, jazzy, etc. They are performed here by Simon Mulligan, a British pianist I have not previously encountered. His performance here is astounding in its technical security and precision in the fast pieces, while displaying great sensitivity, elegance, and grace in the others.

Listeners who have enjoyed previous recordings of Moravec’s music are likely to be equally pleased with this latest release. Those who have yet to discover his work are not likely to be disappointed if they are looking for a novel stylistic profile in music that respects traditional values.

FANFARE: Walter Simmons
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Works on This Recording

Vita Brevis by Paul Moravec
Performer:  Amy Burton (Soprano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Solisti
Period: 20th/21st Century 
Written: 2009 
Characteristics by Paul Moravec
Performer:  Simon Mulligan (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1996 
Useful Knowledge "A Franklin Fantasy" by Paul Moravec
Performer:  Randall Scarlata (Baritone), Cecilia Brauer (Glass Harmonica)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  La Fenice
Period: 20th/21st Century 
Written: 2006 

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