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CD Review

An American Menagerie

  • Martin Amlin:
  • Kennel (2012)
  • Boxer
  • Collie
  • Xoloitzcuintli
  • Bull Terrier
  • Papillon
  • Weimaraner
  • Whippet
  • Lullaby (2012)
  • Sonata (1987)
  • Violetta (2010)
  • Robert Merfeld: Animal Miniatures (2012)
  • The Donkey (Braying Tempo)
  • The Mice Visit the Cows in the Barn
  • The Turtle's Lament
  • Music of the Night (Cricket Tempo); Lullaby
  • Monica Houghton: Whalefall (2006-13)
Michelle LaCourse, viola
Martin Amlin, piano
MSR Classics MS1474 49:48
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In many ways this is a cleverly conceived recording for the not so unusual instrumental combination of viola and piano. As you can glean from the heading, most of the music here deals with animals, and thus the album's title, An American Menagerie, is well chosen. Martin Amlin's Kennel is filled with what one might call canine Impressionism. The various dogs depicted seem to bark and yelp and play, and behave in ways supposedly associated with their breed. Bull Terrier is clever in how its grouchy and stubborn demeanor is conveyed with halting dissonant chords on the piano and upward slides on the viola. In fact all sorts of effects and gestures are used throughout the piece. Papillon comes across appropriately as playful and mischievous, and Weimaraner is stately and almost philosophical (the album notes mention that there are "hidden quotes from Wagner and Haydn" in the piece – I couldn't identify them). Boxer and Whipper, the opening and closing pieces, both are in a constantly ascending process, the former in a jazzy nonchalant manner, the latter in a lively but somewhat anxious way. A very inventive set of pieces!

Robert Merfeld's Animal Miniatures is not greatly different from Kennel. It is perhaps slightly more lyrical and more reminiscent of television cartoon music, if you follow my drift. It also employs many effects and paints very vivid pictures of its animals and their actions. The patter of the mice roaming in The Mice Visit the Cows in the Barn is cleverly conveyed with soft descending notes in the upper registers on the viola and piano, with the former then playing pizzicato. Low notes on the viola singing a lugubrious theme deftly express The Turtle's Lament. Music of the Night features all sorts of imaginative effects mimicking the sounds of crickets and other night creatures. Again, we have here a fine set of miniatures on the theme of animals.

The last of the creature-inspired works is Monica Houghton's Whalefall, a work written in 2006 for voice and piano, then arranged by her for viola and organ the following year. This version for viola and piano was fashioned in 2013, apparently by the violist here, Michelle LaCourse. The work is inspired by a poem by Elizabeth Bradfield that describes a dead whale sinking to the ocean floor. The music is rather somber and slow, seeming to depict indifferent nature swallowing up one of its massive creatures. A somewhat serene mood comes when the whale reaches the floor, its "new habitat." This can be a rewarding work, sort of the flip side of the mostly brighter music in Kennel and Animal Miniatures.

Amlin's three-movement Sonata, from 1987, is the longest of the other works on this disc. It's a deeper composition than its disc mates too, but also more challenging to the ear. A six-note motive appears throughout the piece in various guises, sometimes hidden, sometimes obvious. The first movement, Chaconne, features a set of variations and grows more animated as it proceeds, seeming to become both more optimistic and more agitated. The ensuing Interlude is somewhat paradoxical: it is restive in its serenity, or in its attempts to achieve it. The Rondo is the most colorful movement as it bristles with energy amid lively, if often changing rhythms and a carefree sense. The music may not exactly evoke the style of Copland, but it does call to mind his spirit, particularly from Billy the Kid. Amlin's two-minute Lullaby begins very promisingly, the viola seeming to yearn and the piano to wander, but the music doesn't really develop much substance. Violetta is a lovely, if somewhat somber piece whose glacial tempo underscores the dreamy character of its lyrical flow.

The performances by violist Michelle LaCourse and pianist/composer Martin Amlin are quite fine, always coming across as spirited and totally committed. The sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced. This is certainly a colorful and rather unique CD of contemporary chamber music that should have more than limited appeal.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings

Trumpet