journal_IIc -- Vol. 21, #2; fall 2006/spring 2007

“Briefly Noted”

Brief Reviews of New CD Releases

For Feldman: Music of Morton Feldman, David Toub, David Kotlowy, and John Prokop;
OgreOgress; Audio DVD

This excellent release by the bizarre and confounding record label OgreOgress is nearly “defeated” by the company’s choice of releasing all its new and future material on the unfortunate Audio DVD format. After trying it on four separate DVD players and two computers, I was finally able to get the DVD to play. A colleague who also tried this DVD release had similar problems. True, there are always trendsetters needed for new formats. However, the sound quality of the Audio DVD does nothing to convince me of the need for this thoroughly nonstandard and very difficult to access format. A quick web search on this release reveals that even one of the composers on the disc quite accurately discusses the format’s many problems on his weblog. Despite its incredibly admirable commitment to recording new music, the OgreOgress label has a bizarre sense of packaging and notes that run throughout many of its releases; these include choices of nearly unreadable colors, program notes printed on the disc faces themselves, paper packaging of astounding inconvenience, and a refusal to number or assign catalogue numbers to its releases. It is a shame that these issues present completely unnecessary barriers to the enjoyment of the strong music found on their releases.

These issues aside, the music on the Morton Feldman tribute release is very strong. Though it includes some small string quartet works by Morton Feldman himself, the large works on the disc are extended works conceived as tributes to Feldman by living composers. Feldman’s string quartet miniatures beautifully encapture the purity and vision of his musical world – without the extended duration of some of his later pieces, or his two numbered string quartets. Of the living composers, David Toub’s superb mf is an exciting study in active motion. The performances by violinist Christina Fong and the Rangzen Quartet are excellent. If you are familiar with this label, this is a very worthwhile release to have. I do hope some other potential listeners might persist to hear the music in spite of the frustrations that OgreOgress seems to throw up with every disc. – Thomas Abbott


Alan Hovhaness: Music for Violin and Viola; Christina Fong, Arved Ashby;
OgreOgress; Audio DVD

Alan Hovhaness: Music for Violin and Viola; Christina Fong, Arved Ashby; OgreOgress As an enthusiastic, but cautious, admirer of the prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness, I do await each new release of his work eagerly. Within each new disc, the usual mix of excellent, good, and downright bad pieces occurs, a mix that Hovhaness kept up for his entire career. This disc of violin and viola music (both unaccompanied and with piano) contains works of Hovhaness only up through the 1960’s – which is a good sign in terms of encompassing periods in which he did some of his finest work. This is clearly a “must have” for any Hovhaness fans. For others, it is a good place to start in exploring his infrequently played chamber music. My personal favorite selection is the characterful Duo for Violin and Harpsichord of 1954 which combines the two instruments in characterful ways. The performances are very good. I do wish, in places, for a violinist possessing a more of a rich, romantic tone. Christina Fong does, however, display great commitment to this repertoire. Arved Ashby’s supportive accompaniment is just right throughout. Very excitingly, I am told by the editor that OgreOgress has recorded this past year a disc of previously unrecorded violin, viola, and piano concerti of Hovhaness. One of Hovhaness’s finest works, Talin (a viola concerto), is to be included and this will thus be a release to await with great eagerness. – Bill Pierson


Charles Wuorinen: Horn Trio; Horn Trio Continued; Double Solo for Horn Trio; Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano; Trombone Trio; Trio for Bass Instruments;
Group for Contemporary Music; Naxos 8.559264 (64:57)

Charles Wuorinen: String Sextet; Second String Quartet; Divertimento; Piano Quintet;
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, TASHI, Group for Contemporary Music; Naxos 8.559288 (75:45)

The chamber music of American composer Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938) has been well represented on CD recordings in the past, owing largely to his active relationship with the Group for Contemporary Music in New York City which he co-founded in the 1960’s. All of the recordings on these two discs, with the exception of the short string quartet Divertimento, were originally released on the Koch label in 1992-93. Now that those original releases have gone out of print, Naxos is to be strongly commended for rereleasing these absolutely essential compositions. Though often assigned to the category of midcentury American serialism (of which he was a committed advocate), Wuorinen’s work displays a sense of musicality and passion, coupled with a superb ear for sonority that leaves most of his other stylistic contemporaries far behind. Like all great music, a Wuorinen work gives the listener new treasures each time it is heard – from the energetic and finely textured surfaces to the largescale sense of musical discourse and tightness of construction.

Wuorinen is well-known for his ability to write compelling music for unusual instrumental combinations. The disc of trios from the 1980’s demonstrates this well – particularly in the unusual scorings of Trio for Bass Instruments (1981) [trombone, tuba, contrabass] and Trombone Trio [trombone, piano, vibraphone]. In both of these works, Wuorinen looks for coloristic resonances between the three instruments. In the latter trio in particular, one often feels as though the trombone has entered a “resonating chamber” – as the two percussive instruments surround it with color and dialogue.

For this reviewer, the most striking works on this disc are Horn Trio (1981) and Horn Trio Continued (1982). Both are absolutely electrifying – holding the listener’s interest and engagement for every moment. Many composers when writing horn trios seek to exemplify the distinct contrasts between the three instruments (horn, violin, and piano). Wuorinen, however, pushes each instrument in the trio to its absolute ecstatic limit, and, in the process, finds an immense amount of common ground between them. This “cycle of trios” is almost assuredly the most important single body of work in American chamber music of the 1980’s.

In contrast to the mostly “uncommon” chamber groupings of the trio disc, the second release contains chamber works of more normal instrumental configurations – string quartet, piano quintet, and string sextet. The Brahmsian Piano Quintet (1993-94) is a highlight of this disc, compressing a great deal of passion and drama into its 25 minute span. The String Sextet (1988- 89) shows a superb blending of instrumental color. All six string instruments end up completely intertwined – turning into one large super-instrument. Wuorinen has written four string quartets to date which range from the early 1970’s up to the present. The second quartet is in four movements, each containing numerous contrasts. Beginning in a world full of nervous energy, it moves gradually to a more settled (yet still active) landscape. The light and fleeting Divertimento (1982) also exists as a work for saxophone and piano. Wuorinen has frequently recast the musical material from one of his pieces into another – often resulting in a dramatic musical transformation. The performances contained on both discs are superb. The Group for Contemporary Music encompasses many of New York City’s finest new music specialists, and they throw the full weight of their passions into Wuorinen’s work. Both TASHI and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center are well-known ensembles that also show their commitment in the fine performances they deliver. These are two of the most essential recordings of 2006 for anyone interested in American music or significant works of chamber music and are strongly and urgently recommended. – Carson Cooman


A View from Charles Bridge
MMC 2123, Time: 65:32
by David Cleary

This is one of several multi-composer releases on the MMC label. As these go, it’s all right if not exactly essential.

Moon-Mirror, Denying the Abyss by Marc W. Rossi provides the disc’s most satisfying listen. Despite the program notes’ assertion of Indian raga and Latin flamenco influence, this single-movement tone poem is a thoroughly Western art music creation, chromatically modal and brooding in the manner of Shostakovich and some film scores. Its three primary ideas arise leisurely during the course of the piece between more developmental passages, the whole loosely outlining a narrative curve shape. It’s earnestly pleasing. William Thomas McKinley’s Symphony No. 6 (“Prague”) stylistically mirrors Rossi’s opus. Like Mahler’s fourth symphony, its finale includes a prominent vocal solo part, here a setting of Jaroslav Seifert’s poem “A View from Charles Bridge.” While more focused and compelling in speech than the Rossi, this prolix, scattered work badly needs tightening in both its structure and material.

Festive in the manner of Edward Elgar, Salutation by John Biggs is a composition of expansive gestures and brief duration. New Tonalist in a highly chromatic way, it revels in big octave doublings and broad fanfare-style brass scoring. One can characterize it as attractive enough if not altogether distinctive. Scherzo for Orchestra shows Frank Graham Stewart writing bumptious music that wobbles between post-Neoclassic and late Romantic idioms -- plenty puckish, but much too disjunct in idea and unfolding.


Jade Nocturno: Alejandro Escuer
Quindecim Recordings QP 071, Time: 63:28
by David Cleary

Mexican flautist and tonemeister Alejandro Escuer is a legitimate talent in both aspects of his career. This enjoyable release features several worthy pieces and lots of remarkable playing. Several entries by Mexican composers can be found here, the best being Mario Lavista’s Danza de las Bailarianas de Degas (1992) for flute and piano. The work traces a clear ABA structure, outer sections loaded with busy patterned material (though the recapitulation is a bit more laid-back and fragmented) flanking a slow center that incorporates snatches from what surrounds it. It’s energetic and compelling. Escuer’s two solo flute compositions also please greatly. The title track (1998), which traces a narrative curve schema, is by and large slow, hushed, and atmospheric, subtly rousing itself to a climax by incorporating filigree rather than delivering a knockout blow. There’s a distinctly Oriental hue to the fabric here. Two narrative curve shapes delineate the architecture of Templos (1993), the first one small-scale and peppered with key clicks, the latter more forcefully etched and involving full-on playing. Special effects are extensively used. De Pronto (1987) for alto flute, cello, and harp by Arturo Marquez is a sinuous bauble that discovers an attractive midpoint between Latin American and Impressionist styles. The problems inherent to writing a lengthy solo woodwind entry surface in Graciela Agudelo’s multi-movement Meditaciones sobra Abra Yala (1995) for flute alone. Like Templos, there’s no shortage of imaginative extended techniques use, but without intriguing formats to distinguish these movements or a larger overview to harness them, this opus becomes a labyrinth of colors and straight flute tone with no context to justify its 16-plus minutes.

The non-Hispanic tonemeisters mostly hold their own well. For flute and piano, Soaring (1986) by Joseph Schwantner packs a colorful, informationfilled wallop within its two minutes, employing a binary outline to good effect. There’s an appealing primitivism afoot in Yuzuru Sadashige’s Third Tribe (1997). The composer nearly outfoxes himself by making his interpenetration of rhapsodic and toccata-like material too complicated, but in the end, this flute/piano/djembe (a West African drum) item proves a winner. Unfortunately, Color and Velocity (1996) by Robert Rowe makes rather bland and shapeless use of its interactive flute and synthesizer writing, allowing the former to dominate the largely reticent electronics. Escuer’s flute playing is sensational, attributes including excellent phrase delineation, sparkling finger work, remarkable control of extended techniques, and a huge, buttery sound with just the right amount of vibrato. Alvaro Bitran (cello), Juan Carlos Cirujeda (djembe), Mauricio Nader (piano), and Lidia Tamayo (harp) prove to be topflight chamber associates. Sound is excellent except in the Sadashige, where sonics are more distant and distortion occurs. Production values are fine. Much recommended.

a handsome photo of Alejandro Escuer with flute in original article
(Alejandro Escuer)
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