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CD Review

Jennifer Higdon

Early Chamber Works

  • Amazing Grace (1998/2003)
  • Sky Quartet (1997/2000)
  • Sonata for Viola & Piano (1990)
  • Dark Wood (2001)
  • String Trio (1988)
Molly Carr, viola
Charles Abramovic, piano
Eric Stomberg, bassoon
Serafin String Quartet
Naxos 8.559752 75:42
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Looking for Jennifer.

I consider Jennifer Higdon one of our best contemporary composers, although I don't like everything. I've read adverse criticism, usually British, that calls her work "superficial" and "vacuous." Certainly, it doesn't resemble much of the music in Britain today. It doesn't know from irony, for example, or austerity. It takes big breaths and strides and in general sounds "full" – not so much like postwar music as the Modern music between the World Wars. I think of it as American at its heart.

Higdon studied composition with George Crumb and sounds nothing like him, a credit to Crumb as a teacher. I think of her as assured and substantially in control of her musical material, because I've heard only her relatively new work. This CD gives me an opportunity to see how she matured.

The String Trio, the earliest work on the program, shows that she didn't spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus. It sounds nothing like her Concerto for Orchestra, for example, or even her quirky chamber piece Zaka. It shoots out long tendrils of intense music that seek resolution and reminds me a bit of a Bartók string quartet. This composer seems to search for her artistic self, but even at this early stage, her mastery of her musical argument impresses.

In two movements – "Calmly" and "Declamatory" – Higdon's Viola Sonata may well turn out one of her most enduring works. I compare it to Rebecca Clarke's masterpiece for the instrument and conclude that it loses little, if anything to the earlier score. "Calmly," despite its title, may begin and end in serenity, but we run into plenty of agitation along the way. The opening obviously owes much to the magical beginning of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, while the middle contains Copland in his "laying down the law" mode, to quote Leonard Bernstein, as well as a bit of Hindemith. "Declamatory" begins with a Hindemithian maestoso and moves into a Prokofiev toccata. Just before the rush to the finish, we get another bit of Coplandian calm. All these echoes – extremely well done, I should add – indicate a composer still searching for a personal voice. The end of the sonata gives us an inkling of it: jazzy, boogie-woogie pyrotechnics.

The Sky Quartet takes its inspiration from the Big Sky of the American West. In most of the movements, I don't really hear that, perhaps because Copland and Jerome Moross set my expectations. At any rate, the connection needn't get in the way of one's enjoyment. The quality of the work itself matters more. The quartet doesn't quite succeed, despite some imaginative touches. The very beginning, a polyrhythmic farrago on unisons and octaves, is a wonderful idea, but when I compare it with Marie Incontrera's Limbic Breath, which uses that same general idea, Higdon's treatment doesn't amount to much – tuna hot dish rather than jambalaya. It also doesn't "feel" much like a string quartet. Although the textures are assured and even beautiful, the composer needs to vary them more often. As it stands, in the first two movements especially, all four instruments seem to play all the time. For this piece, the idiom of the slower, more reflective music derives from Copland, but without that composer's incisiveness. Again, this score shows a composer in search of her musical self, mainly by trying on an Aaron Copland mask.

So does Amazing Grace, for that matter, although it also shows greater mastery of writing for string quartet, as far as varying the textural weight of the instruments. It's quite a beautiful score. However, if I picked nits, I'd point out that the first violin takes the melodic lead too often, violating the string-quartet ideal of a conversation among equals.

Higdon states that Dark Wood, for mixed quartet (bassoon, violin, cello, and piano) comes from the desire to write a chamber piece in which the bassoon functioned as an equal partner and which emphasized the virtuosic, as opposed to the singing qualities of the bassoon. She succeeds in spades. This is music with a sharp tang, even in the slow sections, and we see the composer coming into maturity. Her artistic search has begun to yield fruit. The momentary echoes of somebody else have been sublimated into a distinct personality, much as the Ravel moments in Vaughan Williams simply don't stand out as such. The most recent score on the program, Dark Wood rates as my favorite, I'm happy to say, and adumbrates the considerable composer just around the corner. The rhythms especially get my heart pumping, as do the sharp statements and retorts (in Higdon's phrase, music of "bite") of the ensemble's conversation.

The Serafin Quartet and friends do a bang-up job on all of this, even though the string-quartet works don't show them in the best light. However, the String Trio does give three of the members something to chew on, at least, and they come through. The quartet violist, Molly Carr, and the pianist Charles Abramovic penetrate to the heart of the Viola Sonata and reveal it as something that should enter the core repertory for the instrument. Bassoonist Eric Stomberg leaps over the hurdles Higdon has put in his path through the Dark Wood as easily as if they almost weren't there, and he and his ensemble partners achieve true chamber give-and-take – the partnership of equals the score demands. Despite the composer's major misfire in the Sky Quartet, a fine disc.

Copyright © 2014, Steve Schwartz