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Charles Wuorinen: Ashberyana; Fenton Songs

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    Lyrical Rigor

    Insanely prolific, difficult to categorize, defiantly uncompromising, endlessly fascinating—composer Charles Wuorinen is all of these things and more. The melodic and rhythmic complexity of Wuorinen’s vast output (more than 240 compositions and counting) can be intimidating at first contact, but once one grasps the fact that all of his music is founded upon a concern with narrative, it becomes surprisingly much more accessible. This seems especially true of his vocal music, which is heard to great advantage on this Naxos recording. “Ashberyana” is a setting of four poems by John Ashbery, scored for baritone, string quartet, trombone and piano. The strings and piano provide a harmonic foundation that is by turns impressionistic and discordant the baritone gives eloquent expression to Ashbery’s highly idiosyncratic verse, while the trombone functions as a kind of secondary voice in sympathetic and at times sardonic counterpoint. The melodic progression is marked by a disjunctive quality, though not to the extremes of his more complex works. Wuorinen has set two further pieces to the poems of James Fenton, appropriately titled “Fenton Songs I” and “Fenton Songs II.” These proceed along similar lines, but with somewhat less severe and angular contours. The soprano voice also contributes to a softer, more rounded musical texture, but one that is still marked by dramatic contrasts of tone and intensity. The solo piano pieces “Praegustatum” and “Ave Christe of Josquin” are sequenced in between the vocal works, and provide brief tonal respites from the prevailing dissonance. Further contrast is proffered in “Josquiniana,” a string quartet arrangement of vocal music by the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. The six movements of this piece are distinguished by gorgeous harmonies and lush sonorities, and demonstrate that Wuorinen is no ivory tower elitist, but a composer who can, when the mood strikes him, articulate his musical aesthetic with striking warmth and clarity.

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