About this Recording
8.559264 - WUORINEN: 6 Trios
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Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938)
Six Trios

For all Charles Wuorinen’s longstanding reputation as a modernist, the arc of his musical career has more in common with those of Brahms and Beethoven than with any contemporary model. Like many of his great predecessors, Wuorinen developed and refined his distinctive style and rigorous craft through the very work of composition, through the life of being a composer. Since his co-founding of the Group for Contemporary Music with Harvey Sollberger in 1962, that life has encompassed not only the writing of music but also conducting, piano performance, and teaching, all pursuits that have informed and enhanced Wuorinen’s sense of his own music. His music, from his earliest pieces through the more recent masterworks, can be seen as a body of work as significant as one is likely to encounter.

The works on this disc, all trios of diverse combinations, of similar length, all commissions, and all written in the early 1980s, might at first seem like too small a sample from which to consider Wuorinen’s music as a whole. Still, the ways in which the composer approaches the four types of ensemble here illustrate his participation in that tradition of the ensemble genre that has been a lure for generations of Western composers. The piano trio - piano, violin, cello - originated in the classical era; it was with this that Beethoven established his post-Mozartian credentials in the early 1790s. Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvofiák, and many other later composers, made notable contributions. More uniquely, the horn trio’s archetype is Brahms’s Opus 40, which has been virtually a genre unto itself. In recent decades the horn trio repertoire has expanded greatly.

The other two trios are truly sui generis, at least for now. That these two trios were commissioned for the specific forces - double bass, bass trombone, and tuba in the one case; trombone, piano, and mallet percussion in the other - takes nothing away from the Platonic solidity of their combinations as Wuorinen has treated them: the music of these pieces is inextricable from the fundamental character of the instruments involved. The composer is endlessly sympathetic to the interplay of the techniques, timbres, even “personalities” that are the carriers of his musical expression. (The opening moments of the Trio for Bass Instruments epitomize this awareness.) Taking together the familiar genres here with the unique, we have a further sense of Wuorinen’s connections with the Western musical traditions of the past as well as of the modern. Ultimately, of course, these contexts are by-products of the composer’s primary concern, which is to create a piece of music artistically satisfying to composer, performers, and listener.

The wonderfully blithe Trio for Bass Instruments was commissioned by tubist David Braynard, to whom it is dedicated. Wuorinen wrote it over the course of some six weeks between 3rd October and 13th November, 1981, completing it in Corpus Christi, Texas. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the most lyrical of the works here: the flexible, almost improvisatorysounding melodies, like the shared one for bass trombone and tuba just moments from the beginning, have the quality of Middle Eastern or Byzantine vocal music. The easy flow of these lines never hinders the strong sense of pulse typical of Wuorinen’s music.

Horn Trio and Horn Trio Continued were both commissioned by Julie Landsman, who since 1985 has been Principal Horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Horn Trio dates from 1981. Here the repeated notes of the very start in piano and violin, intensified in the horn’s flutter-tongue entry, are a key element throughout the work. Wuorinen’s treatment of the three instruments is of particular interest: unison or textural couplings of two of the three instruments occur quite frequently, creating temporarily a single metainstrument in counterpoint to the autonomous third player. Throughout the piece, powerfully driven music contrasts with passages of sustained, but still forwardmoving, lyricism.

Horn Trio Continued, completed in May 1985, may be played independently of Horn Trio or as a second movement to that work. Its character, in relation to Horn Trio, is less impulsive than buoyant, even playful; the horn is perhaps a little more prominent as leader of the trio, and its distinctive “stopped” timbre is used with greater frequency here. There are readily audible crossreferences to Horn Trio, as well: for example, Horn Trio’s opening gesture appears in Horn Trio Continued as a corollary to the prevalence of repeated pitches in the texture.

Wuorinen wrote the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano between 28th May and 2nd August, 1983, in response to a commission from the Arden Trio. In common with the rest of the works on this disc, the musical content is essentially motivic, although in Wuorinen’s music (like Beethoven’s) the “motive” is less a fragment of tune as a complex gesture with specific melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic qualities. The most prominent gesture, present already at the start of the piece, appears in its clearest form at measure 67 (2:34), to be restated verbatim (with slightly different articulation) five bars later (2:57). Close listening will reveal numerous transformations of this fragment as one of the main arguments of the piece. Generally quite active, the Trio from time to time settles on a (relatively) sustained chord, foreshadowing the seemingly breathless repose of the final bars.

Double Solo for horn, violin, and piano was commissioned by Speculum Musicæ for their fifteenth anniversary; the piece is dedicated to violinist Benjamin Hudson and horn player William Purvis, and was completed in late December 1985. Although for the same forces as the two horn trios, Double Solo, as its title implies, treats the instruments in fundamentally different fashion: the horn and violin parts together fulfill one complex solo role (a stance hinted at already in certain passages of the earlier horn trio pieces), with the piano as accompaniment. The texture is much more linear, contrapuntal, the flow and character much more consistent than in the other horn trios. The opening gesture, split between horn and violin - a rising, then falling arpeggio - already indicates their partial symbiosis. At the same time the potential spatial range of the piece is (nearly) encompassed: the piano falls quickly to a chord whose bass is the lowest A on the piano while the violin lands on A-sharp a tenth above the staff. Such radical bifurcations, used motivically, are a common occurrence in the Double Solo. Its rarer counterpart (very Wuorinen, as one hears in many of these pieces) is a series of insistently repeated notes.

The title of Trombone Trio already indicates the primacy of that instrument in the unusual and resonant texture of the work. The work was written in June and July 1985 to fulfill a commission from then-Parnassus trombonist Ronald Borror; the unusual instrumentation was determined in discussion between Borror and the composer. Along with the trombone soloist and piano, the percussionist alternates seamlessly between shimmering vibes (with and without motor) and earthy marimba; the continual recombination of timbres is one of the work’s most beautiful traits. Prominent elements include insistently repeated notes, such as those presented “off the beat” by the trombone against a steady piano pulse, just following the brief, sustained introductory measure, with similar moments in the piano [0:35; 1:47, etc.], where the performer mutes the relevant string with a finger. The big form of this piece is very clearly delineated by a couple of significant pauses: at measure 128 (5:13) and again at measure 254, between which occur passages of manically increased tempo. Following the second, a foreshortened repeat of the opening measure of the piece signals the onset of the brief concluding coda.

Robert Kirzinger

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