This is a most interesting compilation of contemporary chamber works that, with the exception of John Mackey's Breakdown Tango, are recording premieres. All of the music was written in the present century, and most within the last few years. I would say further that by today's standards little of the music could be called challenging or difficult for listeners, hardly avant garde. That said, all the works here aren't necessarily easy on the ear, either – or on the mind.
Indeed, Richard Danielpour's Lamentations (2013) is a dark, dead-serious work written with a dedication that reads: "to the women of Iran, that their voices may be heard…" The album notes explain that Danielpour's ancestry is Persian Jewish on both sides of his family. While he was born in New York City himself, he apparently still feels a strong kinship with the people of Iran and probably with elements of its culture. His music here has an exotic, Middle-Eastern character that is both haunting and unsettling in its slowly paced, mournful and seemingly despairing manner. This is not the kind of work that will brighten your day, but it is a substantive, rewarding effort. The writing for the clarinet, violin, cello and piano (the latter with occasional Brahmsian chords) is very skillful and all the musicians turn in excellent performances.
The Zodiac Trio (Kliment Krylovsky, clarinet; Vanessa Mollard, violin; Riko Higuma, piano) also play splendidly in Andrew List's Klezmer Fantazye (2014). Here is another work with an exotic character, though the moods are generally bright, and the music often playful. Klezmer music, for those unfamiliar with it, is a style associated with the Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, who used it for celebrations like weddings. Featuring dance music and, especially in the United States, jazz elements, it has a style that is well suited to the clarinet. That is the case here, particularly in the latter half of the piece, which has a rollicking, celebratory character where you can easily picture dance and good cheer at a wedding reception or bar mitzvah. Kudos to clarinetist Kliment Krylovsky whose performance sparkles.
The ensuing List piece, Visions from the Aboriginal Dreamtime (2011), is a more serious work of varying moods that depicts the ideas of creation by the Australian Aboriginals. The piece has four sections and begins with an ominous-sounding piano chord in the bass region, coincidentally similar to the opening of Danielpour's Lamentations. But the mood here is one of mystery and desolation until we come to the second section, which has a primitive dance-like character most of the time. The third section, which is about love, is dreamy and sentimental but without turning saccharine or trite. The finale is motoric and energetic, with propulsive Bartokian rhythms from the piano and the music accumulating tension throughout as it builds to a wild conclusion. Lasting about fifteen minutes, this is the longest work on the disc and perhaps the most colorful and certainly one of the more substantive. The performance by the Trio once again is excellent.
Another "colorful" work here is the John Mackey Breakdown Tango. It is the least recent piece here, dating to 2000. It is full of energy and muscle in its outer sections and features a relaxed, rather sassy and sensual tango in the middle section. Krylovsky plays the often sassy clarinet part with such finesse and subtlety. All the performers actually turn in splendid work, including the guest artist Ariel Barnes.
The final offering here, Zodiac: Across the Universe (2013), is really a collection of very short pieces. As the heading above indicates, it consists of twelve miniatures by twelve different composers, each piece depicting a zodiac sign and lasting about a minute. The idea for the work was suggested to the Zodiac Trio when they were on tour in China in 2013. They accepted the proposal and then engaged a number of composers to contribute works to the project, which ultimately drew over one hundred submissions. From these they selected what they believed to be the best and thus fashioned this set of a dozen works. The music is often intriguing and it's quite varied too, as you can imagine, with so many cooks involved in creating the banquet. Sometimes one gets the feeling that some of the works may have been too short for the promising material that they offered.
The first two pieces (Cancer and Leo) are both quite engaging, but the third (Virgo) seems to be struggling to emerge from a haze and ends up saying little. Libra has some nice effects on the violin and piano but left me unconvinced and wondering what it was attempting to express. Scorpio is weird and imaginative and both Sagittarius and Capricorn (which for some reason are spelled "Sagitarius" and "Capricorne" on both the back cover and album booklet) are quirky and colorful. Aquarius and Pisces are somewhat mysterious but don't leave a strong enough impression – maybe they could have been developed further? Aries is playful and offbeat, with quite a clever ending. Taurus has a lazy, dreamy quality but with constant spastic interjections from the violin. It's a bit iffy, but the closing piece, Gemini, is spirited in its anxiety and nervous manner. Again, the performances are very impressive by all members of the trio.
The sound reproduction in all works is quite clear and well balanced. I can highly recommend this disc if you have an interest in contemporary chamber music that is mostly approachable.
Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings