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CD Review

David Del Tredici

Troy 1685/86

March To Tonality

  • Grand Trio 1
  • String Quartet #1 2
  • Bullycide 3
  • Dynamic Duo 1,4
  • The Felix Variations 4
1 Mark Peskanov, violin
1 Michael Nicolas, cello
1 Steven Beck, piano
2 Voxare Quartet
3 Curtis Macomber, violin
3 Anna Lim, violin
3 Marka Gustavsson, viola
3 Christopher Finkel, cello
3 Jeremy McCoy, double bass
3 Margaret Kampmeier, piano
4 Felix Del Tredici, bass trombone
Also available on SACD:

Emotion, intense emotion, color and an unusual kind of vivid expression are all important to the American Pulitzer Prize winning composer and former Guggenheim fellow, David Del Tredici. These two CDs are aptly (and hopefully not provocatively) entitled March To Tonality: the composer experimented with serialism and atonality before returning to more overtly romantic and melodically linear styles. The release exemplifies his world with five chamber and small ensemble works from between 2001 and 2013 works ranging in length from eight to 36 minutes.


  • Grand Trio [CD.1 tr.s 1-3] is a good example of the music of Del Tredici: it has elegiac moments, such as the second lento movement, marked – like the first – "aria". But such passages are tinged with the torment and struggle with which the composer is often preoccupied. There is stress, worry and sadness without the music's ever descending into torpor or self-conscious mawkishness.

    Indeed, comedy, brashness, tenderness, open-heartedness, insistence – never necessarily far from one another – are all characteristics of what is offered on two CDs on New York's Albany label. But these are never qualities, moods or… "impressions" which are evoked for their own sake. At the same time, we're not really clear about specific struggles or wishes experienced or alluded to by Del Tredici. Though it's obvious in the String Quartet [CD.1 tr.s 5-7], for instance, that he is completely aware of them.

    These CDs also illustrate Del Tredici's deliberate wish to render his music accessible by inviting the listener onto common, or familiar, ground – by using the well-known "Paganini" theme in The Felix Variations [CD.2 tr.4], for example; and by achieving a lushness and wholly tonal sound world in Bullycide [CD.2 tr.s 1,2], a fascinating piece aggressively celebrating "the gay experience": the players break off at one point to whisper the names of five recent subjects of anti-gay bullying. This is another example of the bridges which seem to emerge naturally in Del Tredici's music between the conventional and the exploratory. It's clearly his intent to have the two intertwine, and/or the latter emerge from the evident and welcome energy of the former to which he assumes most listeners will subscribe. The players in these pieces are all determined to make these amalgams, or dual intentions, work. And they do as long as you expect no new harmonic, thematic or melodic ground to be broken.

    Del Tredici is never afraid to pick up a musical idea and squeeze, vary, extend, expand it. Indeed, Eric Moe in the CDs' booklet claims (unconvincingly) that he does this "… perhaps even more than Wagner, more than Mahler". The composer certainly examines with great command what he consciously admits is grandeur by virtue of its mood rather than its length in movements like the String Quartet's "Grosse Tarantella" [CD.1 tr.7] (surely an invitation to understand ironically if not quite as a downright challenge). It's a delight to hear the precision and energy of the Voxare Quartet in this work. They never let the pace lapse, yet manage to avoid sewing up every phrase, which would have risked rendering the account dry or perversely anodyne. Forward movement is never absent. Yet it's often apparently interrupted by abrupt pauses for comment, reflection and contrast. The players achieve this balance between spontaneity and faithfulness to specific aims of the writing remarkably well.

    David Del Tredici's nephew, Felix, plays the bass trombone in the Dynamic Duo (with violinist Mark Peskanov) [CD.2 tr.3] and alone in the Felix Variations [CD.2 tr.4]. Commissioned for Felix and in recognition of his extraordinary virtuosity, these two works have similar priorities: to elevate and take emotion for granted in the same way, perhaps, as does a composer like Dvořák. As with every other piece here, the soloists display a dedication to the timbres, textures and integrity of the (solo) instrumental writing to Del Tredici's intentions. These are strangely plaintive and almost eccentrically introspective Dynamic Duo does much to offset any sense which we may have that Del Tredici has turned his back on innovation. For one thing this is music "about" music, however much Del Tredici has been influenced by literature. The music is rightly made to sound natural and open by these players through their technique and concentration.

    It has to be said that there are times when Del Tredici's music – particularly his writing from strings – sounds much like that of the (late) C19th Romantics… Fauré, Franck and the influence of Beethoven are not far away at times. In some ways the piece's lyricism makes it the most conventionally satisfying work on the CDs. Remembering that the instrumentation of Bullycide, for example, was consciously chosen to be redolent of Schubert's "Trout" (the former is for two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano), this decisive "march to" tonality is not surprising. For some listeners, the use which Del Tredici makes of tonality and "conventional" textures may be somewhat lacking in imagination. All the players here, though, pull out every ounce of creativity in the composer's writing. Their sensitivity and integrity and respect for the writing are a delight.

    The acoustic of a studio in the American Academy of Arts and Letters is contained. It appropriately focuses the ear on the playing and the sense of the players' togetherness, which has been carefully engineered. Not particularly resonant, it emphasizes individual timbres and groups of instrumental sound, which is one of the important purposes of this music. The booklet sets the scene and makes some strong claims ("jaw-dropping", "superlatives", "remarkable scope") for Del Tredici. These are really not entirely necessary because the verve and commitment of the players speak for themselves. It sets the scene, explains the world of the composer and gives brief sketches about each piece to be heard here. For those new to Del Tredici this is a good place to start. None of these works is otherwise in the current catalog, which makes these two CDs – each lasting just over an hour – essential for collectors of an enigmatic, in some ways challenging and certainly individual composer.

    Copyright © 2018, Mark Sealey