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CD Review

Margaret Brouwer


  • Shattered Glass 1
  • Quintet for Clarinet in A and String Quartet 2
  • Allegro
  • My white tears broken in the seas
  • Scherzo
  • Moderato, Vivace
  • Whom do you call angel now 3
  • Lonely Lake 1
  • Arrangements for Blue Streak Ensemble 1
  • Claude Debussy's Clair de Lune
  • J.S. Bach's Two-Part Invention #8 in F Major, BWV 779
1 Blue Streak Ensemble
2 Daniel Silver, clarinet
2 Maia String Quartet
3 Sandra Simon, soprano
3 Laura Shuster, viola
3 Alicja Basinska, piano
Naxos 8.559763 58m
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American composer Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940) has achieved considerable acclaim for such works as Aurolucent Circles (2002), Light, for soprano and orchestra (2005), and her Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (2007). Naxos issued Aurolucent Circles on a highly acclaimed 2006 release (Naxos 8.559250). This new disc should further bolster her growing reputation. Brouwer was head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1996-2008 and now serves as professor emeritus there. It was at the Cleveland Institute that she founded the Blue Streak Ensemble, a group of six players who perform on three of the works on this album.

Shattered Glass (2007) is a colorful, percussion effects-laden work with a playful yet menacing character. Scored for a chamber ensemble of just four players (flute, cello, piano and percussion), the music sounds outsized for its modest instrumental forces. That's largely due to the busy percussionist's role: a half-dozen or more different instruments are employed to achieve an array of percussion effects, from bell-like sonorities to popping or clicking sounds from wood blocks. Not that the other players aren't stretching the sonic world of their individual instruments here – they are too, with shrieks and gasps and thuds and much else. In the end, this piece exhibits a style that mixes many elements, and while one could describe its eclectic character in numerous ways, it calls to mind a sort of space-age Bartók. No, the work is not imitative of Bartók, but certain passages seem vaguely reminiscent of the First Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion. Also, the slower and softer sections achieve a kind of "night music" mood, not unlike some of Bartók's so-called night music. Similarities are probably just coincidental. At any rate, the work is much fun and the performance by the Blue Streak Ensemble is very good.

The second work here, the Clarinet Quintet (2005), is much more serious and comes from a quite different sonic world. It's also different because it enters the world of international politics. Brouwer provides album notes on the works and explains that the inspiration behind the Quintet are her "frustration and anger" over the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the "shock and sadness" associated with the 9/11 attack in New York. The composer references a "twelve-tone harmonic plan", and the music shows a tougher veneer than that of the Quintet. That said, the work is fairly approachable. I don't hear much anger or frustration, just an abstract composition of varying moods. Perhaps the clarinet is just too mellow an instrument to sound angry – and the strings simply follow the lead. Near the end of the first movement there are some sinister sul ponticello effects from the strings, and the opening panel is for the most part dark and somewhat agitated. That said, there are hopeful moments in it when Brouwer quotes from All Creatures of Our God and King (also known as Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones), All Praise to Thee and a melody associated with the Muslim Call to Prayer. Apparently these quotations represent a sort of Kumbaya outreach for peace. Most listeners unaware of the background of the work won't recognize the Muslim tune (it's "mixed and overlaid" with the other quoted material) and will likely view the quotations as a Christian statement by the composer. The second movement divulges a somewhat sad and dreamy character but also sounds quite exotic. Brouwer uses a melody here from her song My white tears broken in the seas. Overall, this movement is mostly gentle and quite attractive. The ensuing Scherzo is short and relatively chipper, and the finale works up tension mainly from the strings near the end. An interesting work then, and a fine performance from clarinetist Daniel Silver and the Maia String Quartet.

Whom do you call an Angel? (2005) is the most lyrical work on the disc, apart from the Debussy arrangement. The song is lovely and divulges a vague folkish quality, as of English origin. The text is by David Adams, taken from his September Songs: 9/11. Soprano Sandra Simon turns in a splendid performance and gets spirited accompaniment from violist Laura Shuster and pianist Alicja Basinska (not "Alijca" as misspelled in the album booklet).

Lonely Lake (2011) depicts scenes and feelings associated with Lonely Lake in Canada. Like Shattered Glass, the scoring is colorful – with lots of percussion effects – but the mood is more serene and playful. Again, the Blue Streak Ensemble perform admirably.

Arrangements for Blue Streak Ensemble consists of two parts: an arrangement of Debussy's Clair de Lune and of J.S. Bach's Two Part Invention in F Major, BWV 779. The arrangement of the Debussy is reasonably imaginative but I think the tempo of the performers is a bit too slow. The Bach arrangement extends the piece's length by threefold, thus allowing more instruments to take part in all the contrapuntal fun. The performance is fine and makes a good finale to this splendid disc. The sound reproduction is excellent in all works. If you're interested in contemporary music that is fairly accessible, this new Naxos CD of Margaret Brouwer works should prove of interest. Chamber music mavens of an adventurous bent will especially find it to their liking.

Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings