Notes and Editorial Reviews
2 Songs from Silas Marner.
James Baker, cond;
Elizabeth Farnum (sop);
Gregory Hesselink (vc);
John Shirley-Quirk (nar);
Richard Lalli (bar);
Paul Hostetter, cond;
NAXOS 8.559660 (66:42)
New York-based composer Harold Meltzer (b. 1966) has received significant attention in the past few years; in addition to a Guggenheim Fellowship and a residency at the American Academy in Rome, he was awarded the 2008 Barlow Endowment Prize (to compose a new string quartet) and was one of two Pulitzer Prize finalists in 2009 (for
). Though Meltzer began his career as a composer (studying at Cambridge and Yale), he took a brief detour to law school; after practicing law for several years, he returned exclusively to music. He has since worked as a freelance composer in New York City, founded the Sequitur new music ensemble, and is now a faculty member at Vassar College. If Meltzer was even half as good a lawyer as he is a composer, he was a great loss to the legal field; regardless, I am extremely pleased that he was “reclaimed” by music!
Though Meltzer’s work has been performed with frequency, this is the first CD devoted entirely to it and is thus a very welcome release. The most notable property of Meltzer’s musical language is an extensive use of ear-catching and unusual timbres. However, these timbres are always deployed in the service of a compelling musical argument; there is never the sense of “sound effects.” Meltzer also tends to focus, at any given time, on a subset of instruments from the larger ensemble of a given work. The overall result is a very personal blend of immediate lucidness and sonic creativity that produces an extremely compelling result.
Distinctive timbres are demonstrated very well in the disc’s opening work,
(2008), which is scored for the unusual configuration of the Cygnus Ensemble: two plucked instruments (in this case guitar and mandolin), flute, oboe, violin, and cello. The piece is inspired by the Brion-Vega cemetery (near Venice), the 1970s work of Italian architect Carlo Scarpia. In the booklet notes, Meltzer describes the form of the piece (which consists of three movements of uneven length: 6:13, 10:33, 1: 00) as mimicking his visit to the cemetery: “I explored much of it for an hour, took a break, then went back in for another spell, almost twice as long, seeing the things I hadn’t seen and retracing my steps to some of the places I’d seen before. Then, after a second break, I had a last look around.” It is an extremely beautiful and often very delicate piece.
Despite using a single accompanying instrument (cello), the striking
Two Songs from Silas Marner
(2000–01) abound in colorful sounds. For the first movement, the cello plays almost entirely in harmonics; in the second, an interlocking two-voice cello texture (sounding often like a viola and cello in duet) is created through extensive use of double-stopping. Though the smallest work on the disc, it is my personal favorite.
(2003), an extended work for narrator and piano trio, uses excerpts from a short story by Donald Barthelme as its text; Barthelme’s story tells of a hapless night-college professor who imagines himself as the Sindbad of legend. Works with narrator are notoriously hard to write effectively, but Meltzer achieves admirable integration of the story’s drama with the music; he employs a vignette-like musical structure, in which an array of striking musical ideas pass by extremely quickly but never get in the way of the recitation.
(2001) is a diptych for tenor and ensemble based on a poem of Conrad Aitken and a translation from the Chinese by Hart Crane. The work is largely dark and elegiac in tone.
The performances are all superb. The Cygnus Ensemble has long distinguished itself as one of New York’s finest new-music ensembles (and has brought about a remarkable amount of excellent music for its unusual configuration). The other fine performers include NYC new-music mainstays like Elizabeth Farnum, Gregory Hesselink, and James Baker.
is narrated by the very distinguished English bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk, now retired from singing, but thankfully still performing. This disc presents an excellent introduction to Harold Meltzer’s work, and it is music that is well worth hearing indeed.
FANFARE: Carson Cooman
Works on This Recording
Brion by Harold Meltzer
Elizabeth Farnum (Soprano),
Gregory Hesselink (Cello)
Sindbad by Harold Meltzer
John Shirley-Quirk (Baritone)
Exiles by Harold Meltzer
Richard Lalli (Baritone)
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