- Ashberyana, for voice, trombone, string quartet & piano
- Praegustatum, for piano
- Fenton Songs No. 1 for voice, violin, cello & piano
- Fenton Songs No. 2, for voice, violin, cello & piano
- Ave Christie of Josquin, for piano
- Josquiniana, for string quartet
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This collection of mostly vocal works by Charles Wuorinen is notable in several respects and has gained appropriate publicity. It is a product of the growing contemporary music scene in Houston, TX, which has apparently begun to find ways to build on the substantial presence of modern art in that city for which rising oil prices are good news. And, more importantly, it gives general listeners a chance to start coming to grips with the atonal and often difficult music of New Yorker Charles Wuorinen, a Pulitzer Prize winner of the sort who has never commanded public affection or even attention. The key here is the opening "Ashberyana," a set of four songs commissioned by Da Camera of Houston. The densely wordy poetry of John Ashbery, Romantic in its lushness despite its complexity, proves to be the perfect foil for Wuorinen's abstract but sensuous style. As director Sarah Rothenberg in her excellent booklet puts it, "The focus of Wuorinen's investigations in music is music itself. Herein lies a deep affinity with the poet John Ashbery, who never ceases to be amazed by language." The rhythms of Wuorinen's music complement Ashbery's lines in an absorbing way, and the unusual texture of the work -- an ongoing dialogue between a baritone and a trombone, with supporting decoration by a string quartet and a piano -- keeps the listener's focus anchored. The important role of polyphony in Wuorinen's music is also illustrated by the concluding "Josquiniana," a set of six adaptations -- arrangements is not quite the right word -- of Josquin's chansons for string quartet. The ways in which Wuorinen uses texture ornaments to elaborate the polyphonic structure leads the listener back into the two sets of "Fenton Songs," and the Josquin pieces might profitably have been put in the middle of the program. All the performances are lively and engaged, and the text intelligibility of baritone Leon Williams (in the Ashbery work) almost makes the provided texts, in English only, unnecessary. While Wuorinen is certainly not for everybody (and, like Camel filters, doesn't try to be), this is an unusually accessible rendering of his work.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.