by Walter Simmons
MUCZYNSKI Piano Trios: Nos. 1-3. String Trio. Gallery (Suite for Cello Solo) · Robert Davidovici (vn); Richard O’Neill (va); Carter Enyeart (vc); Adam Wodnicki (pn) · CENTAUR CRC-2634 (73:48)
With his music for flute et al. on Naxos 8.559001 (Fanfare 22:4, pp. 295-97), the two-volume set of piano music on Laurel LR-862/863 (Fanfare 24:6, pp. 62-66, or my web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com), and now this new release featuring his trios, a large majority of Robert Muczynski’s compositional output is now readily accessible in excellent performances on just a few compact discs, not to mention an assortment of other pieces found on a variety of miscellaneous recital discs. All this music establishes Muczynski as one of America’s foremost living composers in the traditional vein: i.e., his music is largely abstract, elaborated via contrapuntal and rhythmic development of motifs, and propelled by the expectations—fulfilled or evaded—of tonality. Chicago-born and trained, but a longtime resident of Arizona, Muczynski—now 74—has pursued an unpretentious, understated mode of expression that occupies a midpoint between the poles of neo-classicism and neo-romanticism. His music is neo-classical in its preference for small chamber ensembles, in its total rejection of grandiosity, in its avoidance of programmatic or extrinsic elements, and in its extraordinarily concise phraseology, with nary a superfluous measure. However, it is neo-romantic in its consistent commitment to the evocation of mood and the expression of affect. The music is never there “just for its own sake,” without an expressive purpose. However, over and above its location on a stylistic grid, Muczynski’s work maintains a consistently high standard of workmanship and artistic quality. Not especially prolific, he has fewer than fifty works in his catalogue. However, having gained familiarity with most of his output, I can assert that there is virtually nothing that is less than engaging, or less than meticulously crafted. Consequently, in their modest, unobtrusive ways, piece after piece has gradually entered the active repertoire; indeed, some, like his Sonata for Flute and Piano, can be considered “classics.”
The piano trio is a genre that hasn’t captured the imagination of many recent composers, so Muczynski’s three efforts fill a real gap in the repertoire. Composed in 1967, 1975, and 1987 respectively, each is approximately 15 minutes in duration. Much of Muczynski’s music displays a typically American fondness for syncopated rhythms and irregular meters. In the delightful Trio No. 1 he really swings, “blue-notes” and all. Both the first and last movements are so infectious that they almost require immediate repetition. No one who hears this trio will ever feel that pure, absolute music for small ensemble needs to be dry and dull.
Trio No. 2 cuts more deeply than its predecessor. A beautifully grave opening soon gives way to another sizzling allegro. The somber second movement culminates in a powerful climax, while the third movement builds to a driving conclusion. Along with the brilliant Cello Sonata (also available on a Centaur CD—CRC 2300—featuring the same cellist and pianist heard here), this is one of the composer’s most deeply searching creations.
Trio No. 3 is substantively cut from the same cloth as the other two, although it explores a markedly different formal design. Opening with a theme and variations, it ends with an exuberant finale that gradually becomes slower and slower, finally coming to a very somber conclusion. Muczynski’s slow movements often evoke reflective moods that are haunting in their dark beauty.
In its typically un-flashy way, the String Trio, composed in 1971-72, is no less appealing than the piano trios. The austerity and limited expressive range associated with the medium barely cross one’s mind while listening to this vigorous and feisty four-movement work.
As brilliant and gratifying as this music is, much of the credit for its stunning impact here must be attributed to the sensational, wholly committed performances. Although these players seem not to have a collective identity, they have apparently played together frequently, and share a hearty enthusiasm for Muczynski’s music. As mentioned earlier, cellist Carter Enyeart and pianist Adam Wodnicki have recorded an extraordinary rendition of the composer’s Cello Sonata. Here Wodnicki seems to set and maintain energetic tempos that invigorate the other members of the ensemble. On the other hand, there is no piano in the String Trio, and that performance is no less exciting.
Filling out the CD is a suite for cello solo entitled “Gallery,” because each of its nine short movements is a musical interpretation of a painting by Charles Burchfield. The music was originally written as background score for a documentary on the painter produced by the composer’s close friend, the film-maker Harry Atwood. The music is melodic, with strong harmonic implications, which makes it more tolerable than much solo string music. It is also evocative of the moods suggested by Burchfield’s paintings.
This is a definite Want List contender that might easily go unnoticed. No one who enjoys mid-20th-century American neo-classicism should let this release slip by.