Notes & Reviews:
Charles Wuorinen's staggeringly prolific output has been remarkably consistent yet tremendously varied. This disc presents the first commercial recordings of three recent pieces, along with the First String Quartet, a watershed work in the composer's career. Wuorinen's personal musical language is unabashedly modernist yet imbued with a love of early polyphony. This spritely, often "maximalist" music invites multiple interpretations and hearings to reveal the riches beneath its ever-shifting surface.
"There are moments when the music's angularity recalls Elliott Carter, while the nagging opening of the string quartet could have come from Morton Feldman, even though what follows it is very different. The ensemble pieces are paired with substantial solo works - the Scherzo for piano, dashingly well played by Peter Serklin, and the impressive Viola Variations, which Lois Martin turns into a tour de force."-The Guardian
The Sunday Times, London
In contrast to the city's minimalists, Wuorinen is a New York maximalist, and able to show that high modernism is not only alive and kicking, but an emblem of the vigour of living.
In fact, the sensitivity and virtuosity of the performers is a huge boon throughout, and the sound is clear and present without being in-your-face, as are many recordings of contemporary works. Good thorny stuff!
American Record Guide
The program closes with the Second Piano Quintet (2008). In four movements with the scherzo split into two parts and the slow, sprawling, often expressive slow movement "finale" sandwiched in between (making this a sort of "anti-finale"), this piece takes on the character of a "late work", though interestingly instead of increasing dissonance level as was typical of tonal composer's late works, this increases consonance. I don't necessarily detect "repentance", but this is an interesting development when thinking about this composer. There is also a somewhat somber slow II following the brief and somewhat hysterical opening. There is plenty of "minor key" allusion in this dark work (it even ends on a minor triad).
The musicians inhabit Wuorinen's idiom entirely, adding their own inspired thoughts about bringing purely instrumental effects to bear, like the tawny bite of bows in the work's opening bars. Peter Serkin adds an imprimatur of Wuorinen's importance by playing the Scherzo for piano, the composer's instrument, as if it were a newly discovered Goldberg Variation. The Viola Variations bristle with echoes of Strauss's Don Quixote.
Frank J Oteri's detailed critical apparatus speaks of magical musical creatures like "transformations of the generative material" and "microtonal pitch bendings". Producer Judith Sherman contributes a non-distracting sense of space and a touch of warmth.
... The performers who join Serkin - violist Lois Martin, violinists Curtis Macomber and Jesse Mills, cellist Fred Sherry, and the Brentano String Quartet - are brilliant, seasoned veterans of the new music scene, and they tackle this daunting repertoire with absolute technical assurance and a transparent delight in the opportunities the music offers for emotional and dramatic expression. Naxos' sound is clean, detailed, and nicely ambient.
Wuorinen at his best
There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Charles Wuorinen. People either dislike him or like him. Fans of the craggy, prolific composer will not need any encouragement from me to order this disc. Here are three late works, the Scherzo for piano, the Viola Variations and the Second Piano Quintet (2007-8) and a very early one, the First String Quartet from 1971.
The music is shimmering, dense and constantly in flux, and as with much of Wuorinen, there is a unique lyricism with jagged edges. But the whole is organically made with Wuorinen's expert craftsmanship. Peter Serkin, Lois Martin and the Brentano String Quartet deliver as fine a set of performances as one could hope for. Although I don't like everything Wuorinen has done, this disc deserves a high recommendation.
Submitted on 03/31/11 by DPost
Engaging works by a modern master
This new release from Naxos presents an interesting picture of Charles Wuorinen's chamber music output. It starts with his first string quartet from 1971, which serves as a point of reference. The rest of the disc features works written within the past few years, simultaneously showing just how much Wuorinen's style has matured, while his musical language remained fairly consistent.
Wuorinen's First String Quartet is very much a work of its time. Although one could characterize the music as atonal, it sounded to me like there were pitch centers (but not triads) that Wuorinen would go away from then return to. The quartet has a stop-and-start feel to it -- long, drawn-out notes followed by frantic bursts of activity. But there's a logic to those tempo shifts. It's as if the quartet is breathing in and out, moving ahead in a series of ripples.
The other major work on the album is his Second Piano Quintet from 2008. Some might call it a 12-tone composition, but even on first hearing it seemed to me there was something more going on. It's the kind of structure I expect to find in more tonal works. The end result was I thoroughly enjoyed the composition. It was fresh, innovative, yet not so far removed from convention that the listener has no point of reference.
Also included on the release are two shorter works, Wuorninen's Scherzo for piano, and the Viola Variations. Stylistically, both lean more toward the string quartet than the piano quintet, but still engaging works, nevertheless.
The musicians on this release, the Bretano String Quartet, pianist Peter Serkin and violist Lois Martin, all play with authority and conviction. They've internalized this music and present it with expressiveness and warmth.
Submitted on 04/06/11 by RGraves321
An important American composer you should know
Charles Wuorinen (b.1938) has been composing rich, complex and heady material for over fifty years I remember first being exposed to Wuorinen's music through an old Nonesuch recording of his electronics piece, "Time's Encomium" from 1970, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Wuorinen has written in virtually every genre, including opera and he has served as a faculty member at many of the country's most prestigious schools of music. Stravinsky, himself, considered Wuorinen an important composer on the world wide stage; not just among those from America. Wuorinen has been described as a "maximalist," writing music luxuriant with events, lyrical and expressive, strikingly dramatic. His works are characterized by powerful harmonies and elegant craftsmanship, offering at once a link to the music of the past and a vision of a rich musical future. I find all of his music to be fascinating to listen to but also very aurally needy. This is not a music that serves well - or should - as simple "background" music. It is much interesting to follow pitch rows, textures and the surprising moments of drama that come from sudden articulations and exotic harmonies. This new disc from Naxos is the latest in a wonderful series on Naxos, with more planned, featuring some of Wuorinen's finest works. On this recording, the two string quartets are reason enough to engage in the listening. The First String Quartet (1971) is elegant and arresting all at once. There are attractive layers of melody and elements of repetition that sound almost as if they belong to a different composer. The solo writing is strong and virtuostic. The second string quartet work is actually the Second Piano Quintet from 2008. This piece makes a strong immediate impression. The opening is vibrant and highly rhythmic while the fourth movement (without a specified tempo designation) is almost jarring in its melancholy. The Quintet also benefits from moments of strong solo writing. In each movement, a different instrument takes the lead. This is, clearly, very difficult music to perform but so fascinating to listen to. The Brentano String Quartet with pianist Peter Serkin give convincing, vibrant performances. The other solo works in this collection are wholly engaging as well. The Scherzo for piano, from 2007, is a sparkling, almost jazz-like work filled with constantly shifting rhythms and requiring amazing digital dexterity. Serkin, for whom the work was written, gives a wonderful and artistic performance where pyrotechnics and careful mannerisms coexist. The Viola Variations (2008) were another brilliant surprise for me. The viola is an instrument capable of great expression. Violist Lois Martin provides that exactly from the moment of the first glissando and into some wonderful turns, trills and twists. The work itself is serialist but there is plenty of consonance as the work revolves around a small amount of key pitches without being in a traditional key. There is drama in this work and very enjoyable to listen to. For me, the best thing about this collection is becoming more familiar with Wuorinen's music than I was and wanting to hear more. The other discs in this Naxos collection, especially his Dante Trilogy sound fascinating and I am anxious to explore more. This music is, as I said, something that is best appreciated by careful, somewhat analytical, listening but it is well worth the experience into this American master; perhaps not known as much as he deserves.
Submitted on 04/20/11 by Dan Coombs