MORAVEC Anniversary Dances. LIEBERMANN String Quartet No. 3. JALBERT Icefield Sonnets. S. CURRIER Next Atlantis

by Walter Simmons

LIFE MUSIC III • Ying Quartet • DORIAN SONO LUMINOUS DSL-92114 (59:33)
MORAVEC Anniversary Dances. LIEBERMANN String Quartet No. 3. JALBERT Icefield Sonnets. S. CURRIER Next Atlantis

This is a meticulously performed recording of a largely interesting and rewarding program. Anyone intrigued by the contents is not likely to be disappointed. “LifeMusic” refers to the Ying Quartet’s large-scale project to commission two new works per year—one from an established American composer, and one from a lesser-known figure. This recording documents four such works.

Paul Moravec is one of the most celebrated of today’s composers—a Pulitzer Prize-winning “neo-tonalist” currently in the prime of his career. His Anniversary Dances, dating from 2006, draws its title from the fact that friends of the composer contributed to the commission fee in commemoration of their 30th wedding anniversary. Despite the implications of the title, the work is a continuous stretch of some 14 minutes of music, all based on a few motifs presented near the beginning. The piece is easily identifiable as a work of Moravec—at times, brazenly triadic, with busy textures that periodically culminate in passionate, ecstatic epiphanies. Sometimes the music is reminiscent of that of Bohuslav Martinů; at other, more introspective, melancholy moments, of early Samuel Barber. This is not intended as a criticism in any way, just as a means of placing the music within a stylistic context. The work is consistently engrossing from beginning to end.

Another one of today’s major figures is Lowell Liebermann. His Quartet No. 3, “To the Victims of War,” was composed in 2007. Like the Moravec, it is a single, through-composed movement of about the same duration. In the past my enthusiasm for Liebermann’s work has been somewhat restrained, as I have found it to be, though well-crafted in every way, somewhat lacking in individuality, creative urgency, and conviction. However, this string quartet is one of the most fully convincing works of his that I have heard, with creative urgency and conviction aplenty. The program notes link it with Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, owing to its subtitle and source of inspiration, and the work basically inhabits a post-Bartók/Shostakovich idiom. Nevertheless, Liebermann’s quartet proceeds in a very different direction from the Soviet composer’s celebrated effort, so that I find the association somewhat limiting. The work at hand is considerably more lyrical than either earlier composer, and, toward the ending, is strikingly and eloquently beautiful. The recording is valuable simply for these two works alone.

Pierre Jalbert was born in New England, of Quebec ancestry. Now in his mid 40s, he is on the faculty of Rice University in Houston. Icefield Sonnets, a work from 2004, was inspired by a set of poems by Anthony Hawley that deal with “the idea of North,” as Glenn Gould put it. Each of its three sections attempts to capture the feeling of some of the manifestations and images associated with the frigid North. Jalbert’s music is less traditional in style than the two works just discussed, but is highly evocative of the visions and concepts he has sought to suggest. Furthermore, despite the similar subject matter of each movement, the work displays enough variety in its sonic impact to hold the attention of the listener. Coincidentally, the duration of Icefield Sonnets is virtually identical to that of Moravec’s and Liebermann’s works.

Unfortunately, the one longer work is the one I found least interesting: Next Atlantis, by Sebastian Currier. (In his mid 50s, Sebastian is the one-year-older brother of composer Nathan Currier.) The most recent work on the disc, Next Atlantis is a sort of negative fantasy that purports to suggest the flooding and destruction of New Orleans, as the string quartet is blended with electronic water-like sounds. In its conception the piece reminded me somewhat of the music of Gavin Bryars. Many of the effects Currier creates are intriguing and effective, but the continuous, 19-minute panorama, with a minimum of activity, requires a degree of focused attention beyond what most listeners can muster. Furthermore, to my ears at any rate, the sonic experience failed to convey the stated intention of a dystopian soundscape of a New Orleans totally submerged under water.

Although I found Currier’s piece somewhat disappointing, overall this is an excellent sample of music for string quartet written by American composers during the period 2004-2008. The Ying Quartet is a most impressive ensemble, whose passionate conviction is never achieved at the expense of precision.