Wednesday, September 21, 2011

New music for new virtuosos

River of Light
American Short Works for Violin and Piano 
Tim Fian, violin; Pei-Yo Wang, piano 
Naxos  8.559662

Violinist Tim Fain had an interesting idea. Violin virtuosos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a wealth of short, contemporary works to round out their recitals and use as encore pieces. So why not develop a similar body of music for modern violinists?

That’s the concept behind River of Light, a selection of short violin showpieces, all composed by American composers -- many at the behest of Fain. Some of the biggest names in American music are represented, such as Philip Glass, William Bolcolm, Jennifer Higdon, and Aaron Jay Kernis, but the collection is about quality, not celebrity.

The disc takes its title from an eleven minute work by Richard Danielpour, an elegiac piece that sings with neo-romantic vigor. Fain brings out the autumnal nature of the work with his sympathetic performance. Another highpoint is Patrick Zimmerli’s “The Light Guitar,” a three-movement work for solo violin that provides Fain plenty of opportunity to demonstrate not only his technical facility, but also his musicality. The work very much depends on the soloist bringing out the lyric quality of the melody, something Fain does very well.

Philip Glass’ “Knee Play 2” (from his opera Einstein on the Beach) makes an excellent moto perpetuo, that staple of the violin recital. Fain plays it with precision and unflagging energy. The oldest work on the CD is “Wistful Piece,” by Ruth Shaw Wylie (1953), a short piece that seems akin in style to Howard Hanson. While it does sound a little dates, Wylie's music still works within the context of the program.

Sometimes I find collections of violin showpieces a little wearisome to listen to, because all the works are pretty much the same. Not so with River of Light. Fain has put together a program of music that offer up variety in style, emotional depth, character, and even instrumentation (some have piano accompaniment, some are solo violin only). This is not only an enjoyable disc to listen to, but one I hope violinists will take to heart. I would love to hear some of these works in recital rather than the same old encore pieces!

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