MORAVEC Tempest Fantasy. Mood Swings. B.A.S.S. Variations. Scherzo

MORAVEC Tempest Fantasy. Mood Swings. B.A.S.S. Variations. Scherzo • Trio Solisti (Maria Bachmann [vn], Alexis Pia Gerlach [vc], Jon Klibonoff [pn]); David Krakauer (cl) • ARABESQUE Z6791 (60:44)

Many are discovering the music of Paul Moravec for the first time, now that he has leaped to the forefront of the new music scene as the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, although, having reached his late 40s, he can hardly be considered a new composer on that scene. This is one time when the honor seems fully warranted, as this entire new release makes abundantly clear. The disc provides an opportunity to hear the award-winning piece, Tempest Fantasy, along with several other samples of this fresh and appealing compositional voice. Arts commentator Terry Teachout, who wrote the program notes for this release, reports having initially been impressed by what he calls “a commingling of immediacy and elusiveness that causes you to want to re-experience it as soon as possible.” This captures my first reaction to Moravec’s music as well, when I was introduced to it about a year and a half ago. The pieces I heard—which included Mood Swings, offered on this CD—struck me as both traditional and post-modern, displaying a satisfying adherence to familiar musical values, while sounding unmistakably like something composed at the turn of the 21st century. To quote Teachout once more, “Moravec uses post-Debussyan tonality not to comment on an older style but to make a direct statement of his own.”

The pieces on this CD document the composer’s productive relationship with the excellent piano trio known as Trio Solisti; the prize-winning Tempest Fantasy adds the clarinet (and bass clarinet) to the ensemble. I discuss the music here collectively, because I find the pieces all equally appealing, and at this stage of familiarity am struck more by their similarities than by their differences. 

For me the most salient qualities of Moravec’s music are a graceful fluidity of phraseology and a mercurial effervescence that at times achieves an almost ecstatic jubilation. He has a fondness for rapid staccato passages, often with repeated notes, somewhat reminiscent of late minimalism, but there the resemblance ends. Notable is a gift for freely flowing, chromatically roaming melodies—unpredictable yet right-sounding when heard, often accompanied by lucid, filigreed arpeggio textures. His harmonic language, while not designed to reinforce a strong sense of tonality, is actually more consonant than it sounds initially, and he favors dazzling, deliciously irregular, but clearly marked rhythmic patterns. Though more contrapuntally involved than most of the current music I encounter, his pieces never sound labored, awkward, or obscure. Perhaps what most sets Moravec’s music apart from that of so many of his contemporaries is its strong focus and confident sense of direction. 

Individually, each piece has its own concept. The 17-minute Tempest Fantasy, completed in 2002, is “a musical meditation” on elements from the composer’s favorite Shakespeare play, which he has used “as points of departure for flights of purely musical fancy.” Mood Swings (1999) is an attempt “to make musically audible the workings of the central nervous system.” B.A.S.S. Variations (also 1999) is based (no pun intended) on the last name of a patron associated with the American Academy in Rome, where the work was composed. The variations are remarkable for their rich expressive variety. Scherzo (2002) is a zesty three-minute encore-type piece. But, truthfully, the appeal of this music is wholly abstract. The titles of the pieces and the concepts behind them seem epiphenomenal to their impact.

While the prospect of listening to an entire CD of unfamiliar contemporary chamber music may sound like bitter medicine to some, I don’t think many will find it difficult to enjoy this recording. The breadth of expressive range that Moravec is able to draw from a piano trio is truly remarkable, although it is, of course, partly a testament to these scintillating performances by the Trio Solisti, along with the fine contribution by clarinetist David Krakauer. Nevertheless, I would love to hear what Moravec would do with a large orchestral work. In the meantime, this new release is strongly recommended to all listeners interested in discovering one of the most individual and rewarding compositional voices on the scene today.