Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: Wuorinen's Chamber Music - engaging and fresh

Wuorinen: Scherzo - String Quartet No. 1 - Viola Variations - Piano Quintet No. 2
Peter Serkin, piano; Lois Martin, viola; Brentano String Quartet

This new release from Naxos presents an interesting picture of Charles Wuorinen’s chamber music output. It starts with his first string quartet from 1971, which serves as a point of reference. The rest of the disc features works written within the past few years, simultaneously showing just how much Wuorinen’s style has matured, while his musical language remained fairly consistent.

Wuorinen’s First String Quartet is very much a work of its time. Although one could characterize the music as atonal, it sounded to me like there were pitch centers (but not triads) that Wuorinen would go away from then return to. The quartet has a stop-and-start feel to it -- long, drawn-out notes followed by frantic bursts of activity. But there’s a logic to those tempo shifts. It’s as if the quartet is breathing in and out, moving ahead in a series of ripples.

The other major work on the album is his Second Piano Quintet from 2008. Some might call it a 12-tone composition, but even on first hearing it seemed to me there was something more going on. It’s the kind of structure I expect to find in more tonal works. The end result was I thoroughly enjoyed the composition. It was fresh, innovative, yet not so far removed from convention that the listener has no point of reference.

Also included on the release are two shorter works, Wuorninen’s Scherzo for piano, and the Viola Variations. Stylistically, both lean more toward the string quartet than the piano quintet, but still engaging works, nevertheless.

The musicians on this release, the Bretano String Quartet, pianist Peter Serkin and violist Lois Martin, all play with authority and conviction. They’ve internalized this music and present it with expressiveness and warmth.

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