- Scherzo for piano
- Piano Quintet No. 2
- Viola Variations
Charles Wuorinen is not a composer whose music is likely to hold much appeal for casual listeners. He demands that audiences pay close attention to his rigorously modernist music, but for listeners who like unambiguously atonal music, his work can be exhilarating. Part of its appeal lies in the virtuoso ability that it requires of performers. Whatever one may think of the music itself, it would be hard to deny that it gives performers a chance to dazzle with old-fashioned bravura display. A prime example is the "Scherzo for piano." Peter Serkin, an outstanding advocate of new music, does indeed deliver a dazzling performance of the hyper-kinetic, dramatically volatile piece. Another part of the appeal of Wuorinen's work is its indisputable musicality. While his harmonic language and use of extreme dissonance may put some listeners off, the musical gestures always have a sense of inevitability, an expressive shapeliness, and even an idiomatic gracefulness. His writing is uncompromisingly complex, but at the same time it sounds like it's driven as much by an urgent need for emotional communication as by cerebral logic. His music always seems to be saying something coherent, even though it may take intensely focused listening, and repeated listenings, to come to terms with his uncompromising level of discourse. Three of the pieces -- the piano "Scherzo," "Viola Variations," and the "Second Piano Quintet" -- were written in 2007 and 2008 and are recorded here for the first time, and the fourth piece, his "First String Quartet," dates from 1971. The performers who join Serkin -- violist Lois Martin, violinists Curtis Macomber and Jesse Mills, cellist Fred Sherry, and the Brentano String Quartet -- are brilliant, seasoned veterans of the new music scene, and they tackle this daunting repertoire with absolute technical assurance and a transparent delight in the opportunities the music offers for emotional and dramatic expression. Naxos' sound is clean, detailed, and nicely ambient.
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Charles Wuorinen (b.1938) has been composing rich, complex and heady material for over fifty years I remember first being exposed to Wuorinen's music through an old Nonesuch recording of his electronics piece, "Time's Encomium" from 1970, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Wuorinen has written in virtually every genre, including opera and he has served as a faculty member at many of the country's most prestigious schools of music. Stravinsky, himself, considered Wuorinen an important composer on the world wide stage; not just among those from America. Wuorinen has been described as a "maximalist," writing music luxuriant with events, lyrical and expressive, strikingly dramatic. His works are characterized by powerful harmonies and elegant craftsmanship, offering at once a link to the music of the past and a vision of a rich musical future. I find all of his music to be fascinating to listen to but also very aurally needy. This is not a music that serves well - or should - as simple "background" music. It is much interesting to follow pitch rows, textures and the surprising moments of drama that come from sudden articulations and exotic harmonies. This new disc from Naxos is the latest in a wonderful series on Naxos, with more planned, featuring some of Wuorinen's finest works. On this recording, the two string quartets are reason enough to engage in the listening. The First String Quartet (1971) is elegant and arresting all at once. There are attractive layers of melody and elements of repetition that sound almost as if they belong to a different composer. The solo writing is strong and virtuostic. The second string quartet work is actually the Second Piano Quintet from 2008. This piece makes a strong immediate impression. The opening is vibrant and highly rhythmic while the fourth movement (without a specified tempo designation) is almost jarring in its melancholy. The Quintet also benefits from moments of strong solo writing. In each movement, a different instrument takes the lead. This is, clearly, very difficult music to perform but so fascinating to listen to. The Brentano String Quartet with pianist Peter Serkin give convincing, vibrant performances. The other solo works in this collection are wholly engaging as well. The Scherzo for piano, from 2007, is a sparkling, almost jazz-like work filled with constantly shifting rhythms and requiring amazing digital dexterity. Serkin, for whom the work was written, gives a wonderful and artistic performance where pyrotechnics and careful mannerisms coexist. The Viola Variations (2008) were another brilliant surprise for me. The viola is an instrument capable of great expression. Violist Lois Martin provides that exactly from the moment of the first glissando and into some wonderful turns, trills and twists. The work itself is serialist but there is plenty of consonance as the work revolves around a small amount of key pitches without being in a traditional key. There is drama in this work and very enjoyable to listen to. For me, the best thing about this collection is becoming more familiar with Wuorinen's music than I was and wanting to hear more. The other discs in this Naxos collection, especially his Dante Trilogy sound fascinating and I am anxious to explore more. This music is, as I said, something that is best appreciated by careful, somewhat analytical, listening but it is well worth the experience into this American master; perhaps not known
<p> 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. </p> <p> 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. </p> <p> 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. </p> <p> 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. </p> <p> 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. </p>
There seems to be little middle ground when it comes to the music of Charles Wourinen. People either don't like it, or really do. Fans of the spiky, prolific Wourinen will not need any encouragement from me to order this disc. Here are three late works, the Scherzo, Viola Variations and the Second Piano Quartet (2007-8) and the very early First String Quartet from 1971. The music is shimmering, dense and constantly changing, and as with much of Wourinen's work there is a unique lyricism with jagged percussive effects mixed in. But the whole is organically made with Wourinen's expert craftsmanship. Peter Serkin, Lois Martin and the Brentano String Quartet deliver as fine a set of performances as one could hope for. Although I am certainly not a fan of everything Wourinen has done, I would highly recommend this disc.