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CD Review

Conlon Nancarrow

Compositions 1935 to 1986

  • Pieces #1 & 2 for Small Orchestra
  • Prelude and Blues
  • Sonatina (trans. Y. Mikhashoff)
  • String Quartet #1
  • Study #15 (trans. Y. Mikhashoff)
  • ¿Tango?
  • Toccata for Violin and Player Piano
  • Trio Movement
Rachel Evans, viola
Maria Kitsopoulos, cello
David Krakauer, clarinet
Celeste Marie Roy, bassoon
Joel Sachs, piano
Cheryl Seltzer, piano
Mark Steinberg, violin
Mia Wu, violin
Continuum/Joel Sachs
Naxos American Classics 8.559196 45mins
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Conlon Nancarrow was a genuine eccentric. Many readers know the basic details of his story: neglected by the musical establishment and looked upon suspiciously by authorities for his left-wing political and communist-sympathetic views, he moved to Mexico in 1940, took up citizenship and carried on writing highly original music, much of it for player piano. The latter genre was chosen by the composer because of the immense difficulties of his piano compositions and their resultant neglect.

The recordings on this Naxos disc date to 1989 and are splendidly realized by the Continuum players. The best pieces on this disc, in my opinion, are the larger works, particularly the Piece #2 for Small Orchestra and the String Quartet #1. In both works Bartók comes to mind, especially in rhythmic features in the quartet and in the piano's chords that begin about a half-minute into the Piece #2 (shades of the Bartók Third?). That stylistic characteristic noted, however, there is little to nothing here that is imitative in Nancarrow's expressive manner.

The piano music is mostly light in mood, usually complex rhythmically and sometimes jazzy. Try the Prelude and Blues or the frenzied Study #15 to sample all these features. Perhaps most interesting among the keyboard works offered on this Naxos disc is ¿Tango?, both for its rhythmic subtleties and its spastic quirkiness: nothing flows here, but moves ahead rather in lurches and nervous tics before finally alternating an oafish, rowdy manner with a delicate, suave touch.

All the music is a treat and will sound like little the listener is familiar with; even the Bartók connection I mentioned may not be noticed by many. The sound is vivid and the notes informative. Recommended.

Copyright © 2005, Robert Cummings