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Bob Neill
Positive Feedback Online, March 2011

WUORINEN, C.: Scherzo / String Quartet No. 1 / Viola Variations / Piano Quintet No. 2 (P. Serkin, L. Martin, Brentano String Quartet) 8.559694
WUORINEN: 6 Trios 8.559264

Among second generation modernists, American Charles Wuorinen (1938–) is one of the most irresistible. And thanks to Naxos’ invaluable American Classics Series, which is not only reissuing (and in the case of Six Trios, re-mastering) some of the most lively and appealing performances of the composer from the original Koch International Classics CD’s but also recording new ones, there are plenty of opportunities to hear him on CD.

Playful, liberating, prank-some, thoughtful, colorful. These adjectives suggest Poulenc but that ignores the fundamental sincerity and humanity that grounds all of Wuorinen’s music. Where Parisian Poulenc is urbane, New Yorker Wuorinen still has some New World delight in his eyes.

The more recent of these two releases features, among others, the brilliant pianist Peter Serkin on his own (Scherzo, 2007) and in a recording premiere (three of the four works on the CD are recording premieres) with one of the premium contemporary ensembles, the Brentano Quartet, led by the great violinist Mark Steinberg.

Wuorinen’s genius is composing manifestly avant-garde modernist music that is nevertheless capable of revealing its connection to the music that came before. His music does not express his generation’s compulsion to break free of music history. Scherzo feels like what a nineteenth century romantic concerto would sound like expressed by a modernist mind. And as unlikely as it sounds, we can almost hear Schubert and Beethoven deep in the background of the First String Quartet. It has a quality of discontinuity which marks the distance from his predecessors: narrative lines leap ahead of where they appear to be going, then double back. It is music that would exhaust a nineteenth century mind. But for us in our later world it feels authentic, and right.

Viola Variations (2008): fourteen minutes of rollicking viola is a long time unless you love the instrument and your audio system can capture most of it. I do and my system does. Soloist Lois Martin loves her viola and sounds grateful to Wuorinen for this work. It’s not all rollick, there is also some singing, some thinking, and some horsing around. Works for solo instruments can be peculiarly powerful by forcing us to focus absolutely on one narrow sonic path through the world. Less can be extraordinarily more, as Bach showed us in the beginning. Fourteen minutes hardly gets us started: it’s over before it begins. 

The Second Piano Quintet (2008) initially feels like a quartet with piano, meaning the piano lurks about the work, interpolating notes and comments, completing phrases begun by the strings, sometimes bolder than that but never staying around for long. By the third movement (of five, played without interruption), its role has grown into a full-time one; and in the fourth, the longest, it is the principal voice, often speaking mainly by itself. Though still absolutely modernist, the work has a curious pastoral quality, especially in the fourth movement, as if Wuorinen were telling us what a properly enlightened modernist Delius would sound like: quiet, ruminative but somewhat arch and elusive too. The final movement leaves troubled pastures behind: here we have a vigorous conclusion with both piano and strings, pretty much flat out in cacophonic and dissonant abandon.

It is reassuring to see that the other musicians here include established and well respected figures Curtis Macomber, violin; Jesse Mills, violin, and Fred Sherry, cello.

The earlier of these two CD’s, a 1997 Koch, re-mastered and re-released by Naxos in 2006, gives us the six trios of the album’s title and was clearly seen by Wuorinen as fun, which it is. A Trio for Bass Instruments (1981)—bass trombone, tuba, contrebass—sets the tone. With no high or even middle voices to distract, we get to listen exclusively to the sounds, pranks, and even lyric possibilities of instruments seldom heard alone together. Horn Trio (1981) and Horn Trio Continued (1982) can be performed separately or together and are almost literally a musical blast—a horn can bark louder than a cello—celebrating the joys and tribulations of cacophony. Wuorinen is what we used to call an extrovert and never more so than here. If you are not a fan of modernist music, these trios will probably not convert you; if you are, no problem.

Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (1983), meaning a traditional piano trio, is pretty much more of the same: aggressive, flamboyant, dissonant—though some will welcome the cello here as a relief from the insistent horn. Violin and cello have some especially nice conversational passages in the midst of the music storm. I found this the most successful work on the CD and wouldn’t be surprised to hear it ‘live’ one of these days.

There is more but you have the flavor by now. Note: the sound of the original Koch CD of Six Trios is decent, the sound of the re-mastered Naxos is spectacular.

These two CD’s give us a lot of musical shenanigans to listen to at a sitting, but spread out over a couple of days, they are highly entertaining if not all essential Wuorinen. He is a composer I am happy to hear all of, so you won’t hear me complaining.

The Baltimore Sun, February 2006

An unrepentant high-modernist, Charles Wuorinen has never abandoned his beloved 12-tone aesthetic. When he is at his best -- as he frequently is in this reissue of a 1993 collection of trios penned between 1981 and '85 -- it is hard to argue the point. Atonal music, including serialism, is not by definition uncommunicative; Wuorinen is always goal-oriented.

The 1981 Horn Trio (horn, violin, piano) leaps out of the speakers in a series of vivid, even theatrical episodes. The melodies and harmonies are knotty but not impenetrable, and the rhythmic thrust is lively and exciting, the textures bracing in their clarity, the writing idiomatic and the expression rich and varied.

The Trio for Bass Instruments (bass trombone, tuba and bass) sounds like a bore on the surface but is actually full of wit (albeit martini-dry).

It's a mistake to try and digest all six works in a single sitting. But a piece or two at a time, this music gives pleasure.

Paul Driver
, February 2006

The American composer (b 1938) was a co-founder of, and remains a pianist with, the Group of Contemporary Music, and writes for them in these differing combinations with evident relish and chamber mastery. The works are all single movements from the 1980’s and exemplify his chunky, hectic and bracing style, one in which notes fly about, but never go astray. The players get a workout, and so do we, our ears encountering such combinations as trombone, tuba and double bass, or trombone, piano and marimba/vibraphone, possibly for the first time. I half expected a trio for two cats and a trombone – but that’s by Edith Sitwell.

Peter Burwasser

The music of Charles Wuorinen presents listeners with a simple challenge: the closer you listen to it, the better it works. But this is a truism, isn't it? Not really. Wuorinen belongs to a generation of American composers (he was born in 1938) who place the highest value on craft. There is rarely anything flashy or sensational about his music; even his percussion music is remarkably delicate. Nor is his music merely technically impressive. Expressivity is deftly woven into the fabric of these works.

Wuorinen's fascination with the technique of composition is reflected in the challenging instrumentation of these six chamber works from the early 1980s. All are trios, and all but one include brass. Trio for Bass Instruments, scored for bass trombone, tuba, and string bass, demonstrates the composer's keen sense for timbral values, both dramatically (and essentially emotionally) and in terms of the relationships of differing timbres. This may seem like an obtuse way of stating an obvious musical characteristic, but it is a rare and elusive gift when expressed at this level, putting Wuorinen in the company of Stravinsky, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and ultimately, Mozart. This is an odd grouping superficially, but all of these composers, regardless of the other elements of their styles, were keenly aware of the unique values of the sounds of different instruments, and of the catalytic effects created as the threads are woven together.

It is natural that an ensemble of low instruments would generate the subtle sparks of wit that are thrown off here. In all of the music on this program, there is an engaging sense of drama, even theatricality, that ameliorates the dense poly tonal harmonic structure. In the Horn Trio, and in the Horn Trio Continued that came one year later, the energy level spikes up a few notches, nearly frenetic at times, but always remains controlled and organized. Wuorinen's style in the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano is consistent with the other works, but the temperature is cooler, with a more elu­sive emotional appeal. As is the case, too, with the Double Solo for Horn Trio, this Trio is more interesting than it is purely entertaining.

The Trombone Trio is the most unusual work here, with the daunting textural and balance challenge of combining trombone, piano, and vibraphone. The key is limiting the dynamic range of the trombone, which has the side benefit of revealing a surprising range of subtle colors and textures from an instrument generally known for a brash insouciance. Here is a superb example of bold timbral blending as well as a sensuality that is probably not normally associated with Wuorinen. His ability to balance all of these elements in a way that does not favor any individual component marks his best work, and marks this composer as a true American master. It almost goes without saying, although it shouldn't, that the performances by The Group for Contemporary Players, cofounded by Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger, are outstanding.

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