Jacob Druckman (1928-1996) was in the 1970s and 1980s one of the most prominent American composers of orchestral music. His style was colorful and dramatic. He combined elements of avantgarde practice with a lyricism and sensuality that made his work far more accessible than many of his New York counterparts. If one can think of an analogue, his non-dogmatic approach--experimental yet also imbued with tradition-is about the closest to that of Berio of any American composer.
This disc, however, highlights a different side of Druckman, presenting several of his major chamber pieces, from several phases of his career. It begins with the Second String Quartet (1966), a work very much of its time. The language is spiky and episodic. Almost nothing is repeated, and the flow is one of "moments" that don't necessarily imply a connection one to the next. There is a great deal of craft, invention, and even moments of calm beauty within it, but overall it wears down one's engagement over time. There are several points where the shadow of Carter's work from the period is felt, but there's not the same sort of "architectural" sensibility that can pull one through the rougher patches.
The String Quartet No.3 dates from 1981, and even though it begins on the same pitch, the second stopped upon, it moves in a very different direction and manner. This is a substantially longer workalmost half an hour-divided into three movements, yet also united by a "braided" structure that alternates a set of variations on its opening chorale with a recurrent scherzo (the effect is now more reminiscent of George Rochberg, whose quartets of this period used similarly cyclic structures). The music is far more developmental in a traditional sense, the spirit more overtly "French" in the delight in arabesque and fanciful detail, and the motives are memorable. I find it rewards more each time I listen.
The final string work, Dark Wind, dates from 1994, close to the composer's death, and is perhaps the most traditional of all, in that it feels almost like an homage to the Ravel Duo, in large part because of the arpeggios (bariolage) in both instruments. It's also fascinating to note that in all three of these string pieces, there's a common gesture throughout-a sustained tone that crescendos and suddenly "explodes" into a flurry of delicately articulated, rapid notes.
Reflections on the Nature of Water (1986) is a solo marimba work that was written for William Moersch, but has become closely associated with Daniel Druckman, the composer's son and the principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic. I remember when I first heard the work (a six-movement suite) a few years back, it seemed a bit generic to me. Now I don't know what I was thinking. Perhaps the fact that it is so idiomatic, elegant, and elemental, rather than being a catalogue of the composer's tics applied to the instrument, at first misled me, because it didn't seem personal enough. Now it just sounds wonderfully, essentially musical.
Druckman was also important as a political force in the field, having taught many important younger composers at Yale, who now are tearing up the field. By curating an important Horizons festival by the New York Philharmonic called "The New Romanticism," he did as much institutionally as anyone to shift the modernist paradigm to postmodernism. I can't help but feel that his orchestral legacy is his strongest-there was something about the power and sonority of the symphony that brought out his greatest bursts of imagination and risk-taking. The chamber music is a little more restrained and, frankly, no matter how detailed, its imaginative resources seem restricted mostly to its surface; there's not a lot of deep expression imbued in its structure and flow. In terms of chamber music, it seems even more to me now that his greatest achievements are in the realm of solo literature, as this marimba work and his extraordinary Valentine for double bass demonstrate.
So in the end, I am glad this release is here for our consideration, but I also feel it is more important archivally, filling out Druckman's recorded ceuvre, and as such will appeal most to those already familiar with and amenable to his music. These are all superlative performances that present Druckman's vision in the best possible light. The sound is also clear and clean.