About this Recording
8.559694 - WUORINEN, C.: Scherzo / String Quartet No. 1 / Viola Variations / Piano Quintet No. 2 (P. Serkin, L. Martin, Brentano String Quartet)

Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938)
Scherzo • First String Quartet • Viola Variations • Second Piano Quintet


Charles Wuorinen’s staggeringly prolific output has been remarkably consistent and at the same time tremendously varied. If the above statement seems somehow contradictory, this collection of four Wuorinen compositions, three relatively recent ones which have not been heretofore available on commercial recordings, together with a brand new recording of one of his defining works from the early 1970s, should offer ample proof that Wuorinen has been able to create an extremely diverse output while remaining true to an immediately identifiable personal musical language characterized by unapologetically modernist total chromaticism, rigorous structural procedures, and an intense rhythmic complexity which has antecedents in the isometric techniques employed by the earliest composers of polyphonic music.

While extreme virtuosity that is nevertheless always completely idiomatic is a hallmark of a Wuorinen composition, the piano, Wuorinen’s own instrument, has been the beneficiary of his most breathtaking instrumental feats. The ten-minute Scherzo (2007) is a remarkable showpiece for what a formidable pianist can do. In the nineteenth century, composers of multi-movement works, which had formerly included a minuet, began to replace the minuet with a less stately, less formally structured, faster, more surprising, and more virtuosic movement they called a scherzo, which literally means “joke” in Italian. The term is extremely appropriate for the spritely music Wuorinen has composed here which frequently hints at dance-like figurations with its frequent cascades of triplets and quintuplets as well as occasionally very pronounced dotted rhythms despite remaining a defiantly irregular panorama of constantly shifting meters.

The First String Quartet is a watershed opus in Wuorinen’s output. Listeners aware of the composer’s avowed maximalism, but not aware of the variety of its manifestations, will be initially startled by the relentless repetition with which the first movement of the quartet begins. But after that initial bout of seeming stasis, comprised of a combination of pizzicato and bowed harmonics involving all four players, the total chromatic is introduced in a sweeping melodic gesture which begins in unison among all four instruments but quickly breaks apart to reveal the four separate instrumental voices. But unlike Elliott Carter’s contemporaneous Third String Quartet, in which each of the four players acts independently and the music is a constant stream of simultaneous narratives, there is usually a sense of foreground and background in Wuorinen’s multiple layers of melody, even though the protagonist is constantly changing, and from time to time the instrumental parts move together creating a great dramatic impact.

The second movement also begins with a repetition, this time a quiet oscillation between two registrally distant notes in the first violin. But it is quickly succeeded by an elaborate interplay between the two violins and cello with the viola conspicuously absent. Each occasionally grabs center stage and all three eventually drop out, at which point the viola finally enters alone on a single, long-held note which leads to a second trio, this time between the second violin, viola, and cello. Eventually all four instruments play, but even after that, members of the quartet in turn are silent as the others engage in frenetic counterpoint. At the end, the cello is completely alone playing tranquilly.

The third and final movement begins where the previous movement left off, with a cello solo, only now it is more agitated. Soon the second violin and cello join in, all in seeming disregard for each other. But the first violin’s bravado entrance, about a minute in, leads to a forceful series of articulations in parallel with the second violin, both in quadruple stops. Then all move independently again, then three of the four join together, then each is on its own again, until quite shockingly all four are in parallel motion. After that the tension builds to what seems like a climax. But then there’s a grand pause after which yet another cell repeats over and over again leading to an ecstatic four-part unison which then very gradually dissolves. At the end all four are playing the note D, which feels very much like a definitive resolution and is in fact the same pitch on which the entire quartet began.

Another pivotal piece in Wuorinen’s earlier oeuvre was his 1963 Piano Variations, which was written for his own performance and is the earliest solo piano composition he still acknowledges. It was the first work he completed in which a work is generated from fragments that are transformed and reordered throughout, hence the title. While the basis for generating the initial fragments of that piece was a twelve-tone set, the subsequent transformations are not exclusively derived through serial manipulations but rather through a far more idiosyncratic and intuitive approach that would eventually lead Wuorinen toward a new approach to pitch centricity within a non-tonal chromatic framework in works such as the First String Quartet. Wuorinen used this same approach in the Flute Variations, also from 1963. In his subsequent Flute Variations II (1968), the focus on specific pitches is so thorough and the transformations of the generative material are so extensive, including microtonal pitch bendings outside the twelve-tone gamut, that it is difficult to hear this music as serial at all. Then beginning in the 1970s, prompted by the virtuosity of cellist Fred Sherry and the late violinist Max Pollikoff, Wuorinen explored the variations idea in works for solo stringed instruments which are capable of an infinite variety of pitch gradations as well as harmonics and multiple-stops, plus a wide range of bowings and pluckings. The Violin Variations of 1972 and to-date three Cello Variations (1970, 1975 and 1997) are de facto text books for what these instruments are capable of and are wonderful demonstrations of Wuorinen’s facility and endless fascination with them. Given that, it is surprising that he did not compose a similar work for viola until 2008, but the Viola Variations have proven to be well worth the wait. From the very first utterance, a slide up and down from the viola’s lowest string, Wuorinen revels in things the so-called “middle-fiddle” can do that no other instrument in the string family quite matches; the work sashays across the viola’s lowest and highest registers throughout.

While Wuorinen’s variations explore a novel approach to the organization of material in a post-tonal idiom, his Second Piano Quintet offers a downright unorthodox and completely unexpected overall formal design. Like his previous Piano Quintet, composed in 1994 for Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet, Wuorinen’s latest foray into one of the most majestic of chamber music combinations is cast in four movements with contrasting overall tempos. But the new quintet does something far more peculiar. Since he alternates brief fast movements with much lengthier slower ones, Wuorinen is able to bring the music back to a high level of energy by continuing the third movement, which seemed as if it had not properly concluded, after the end of the fourth. In Wuorinen’s own words:

[A]long the way the third (fast) movement is displaced in midstream to make way for the extended slow fourth movement. The outraged third movement does have its revenge, however, for it resumes after the third movement has finished, and thus—in its out-of-place way—concludes the whole piece.

The Second Piano Quintet is perhaps the most metrically regular of all of Wuorinen’s mature compositions, with up to entire movements remaining in the same time signature. Wuorinen, however, finds a seemingly infinite way to carve up beats, so that the music still sounds like it is constantly changing meter. The first movement, which is in 3/2 throughout, frenetically races by with the mostly violin-dominated quartet only occasionally punctuated by rapid single-line piano figurations. In the calm and even sparer second movement, in 4/4 throughout, sometimes the piano line is reduced to a single held pitch, making the isolated occurrences of full piano chords sound all the more eventful. But in the upbeat third movement, broad piano figurations return alongside occasional grandiose chords as the quartet glides through layers of counterpoint in which the cello is frequently foregrounded. Then, all of a sudden there’s the very first bona fide piano solo and we’re suddenly thrust into the often tragic-sounding fourth movement, some of the most serene and introspective music that Wuorinen has composed thus far. Alternating between measures of five or seven beats for more than halfway through, the music seems to float beyond time and space. At the end another miniature piano solo, a series of irate clusters, signals the return to the third movement. Layers of ecstatic string counterpoint are once again joined by spitfire piano flourishes and the piece ends on a seemingly more joyous note.

The other peculiarity of this work is that in each of the movements, a different instrument assumes the dominant role, in turn the violins, viola, cello, and piano. Although, according to Wuorinen:

You’d hardly know it, because this simple ground idea (as all general ideas must be simple if they are to work) is so heavily modified in practice by demands of the harmonic, registral, and gestural unfolding of the composition, that for large parts of the work it has only the (nevertheless important) status of a starting point. It’s always a mistake to apply a broad background notion with slavish literalness to the dynamically evolving foreground of any music.

Indeed. This is music that invites multiple interpretations and multiple listenings which is why it is so great to have it all collected here.

Frank J. Oteri
New York City-based composer and music journalist Frank J. Oteri is the Composer Advocate at the American Music Center and the Founding Editor of its web magazine NewMusicBox. His other writings about Wuorinen include a survey of Wuorinen’s entire chamber oeuvre for Chamber Music magazine, published in 2008, and a lengthy conversation with Wuorinen for NewMusicBox: www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=5136.

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