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Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, May 2007

WHO'S AFRAID: Bearded and bespectacled, Charles Wuorinen has a rather formidable look, and few musicians (heck, few people of any sort) are so scarily articulate. And the American composer, 68, has had a reputation as one of the knottier of the musical modernists.

FORWARD FROM BARTÓK: This sampling of Mr. Wuorinen's chamber music, composed between 1979 and 1994, isn't exactly easy listening. But ears accustomed to the string quartets of Bartók won't be shocked by the American's sometimes twitchy angularities and disjunctions.

ENGAGING EAR, MIND: What may be surprising, actually, is how conjunct most of the thematic material is. There's plenty of contrapuntal activity, and the sextet teases the ear by mixing the instruments in unusual parts of their ranges. This is nothing if not intellectually engaging music.

BOTTOM LINE: Music calling for great virtuosity, it's admirably played here by three different ensembles, and superbly recorded. Previously released on the Koch International Classics label, this is a welcome re-entry in the American-music discography.

Erik J. Bruskin
Fanfare, April 2007

This is Naxos's second reissue of material from earlier Wuorinen CDs that are now out of print (along with a first recording of the Divertimento), and many thanks to them for keeping this fantastic music available. The previous disc collected six trios for extremely diverse instruments into one blockbuster collection. This time we move up to string quartet, piano quintet, and string sextet.

Like Homer's rosy-fingered dawn, Charles Wuorinen seems destined to be forever attached by lazy writers to one epithet or another along the lines of "brainy" or "intellectual" or "complex," usually as some sort of backhanded esteem. As if Bach or Mozart weren't all of those things too! When I listen to Wuorinen, I am put in mind of Mendelssohn or Haydn more than Schoenberg or Webern. Wuorinen uses some pretty hard-core serial techniques, but they're in the deep background. The music always sounds lively, with wide-ranging humor from chortling to all-out guffaws (as when a snatch of something sounding like Camptown Races falls out of the finale of the Piano Quintet; this is also the composer that dropped a bald-faced quotation of the opening of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto into a piano piece called The Blue Bamboula).

Wuorinen disproves George Rochberg's contention that serial music can only express angst and neurosis. He also may be the only serial composer who can build a powerful rhythmic head of steam through contrapuntal interplay alone-no chugging ostinatos or inert marking of time, but there is emphatic repetition woven into his motives, which shapes them distinctively and memorably. And all of this is held aloft with a harmonic coherence that's remarkable in music without a traditional tonal center-although I suspect that he's choosing his hexachords carefully, like Stravinsky did, to provide something like a tonal center, because the harmonies are much more vividly drawn than in Schoenberg or Webern. His music is full of notes, but (like Mendelssohn and unlike, say, middle-period Elliott Carter) it never sounds overcrowded; and it's not flamboyantly fragmented like Babbitt. The Sextet, for example, has a very romantic ending in which the players pull together into unified gestures across the ensemble and unison lines that sweep across the entire range of the instruments. The Quartet's final movement begins with late-Romantic lyricism over very tonal underpinnings. And like the blockbuster Third Piano Concerto, the Quintet's final movement crests in running piano octaves.

The stylistic hallmarks of this music are Stravinsky's harmonically and rhythmically sharp neo-Classicism (Symphony of Psalms, the Concerto in D, and the Violin Concerto; the "Stravinsky minor third" is a particular favorite), the clarity and grace of his late serial music, and the motoric concentration and rhythmic vitality of Stefan Wolpe's later music. But Wuorinen takes these elements to another level entirely, one full of characteristically American energy and abundance. Like Mozart, he's profligate with his musical ideas. The result is music of kaleidoscopic richness and balletic motion. I find it enormous fun, and frequently want to hear a piece again immediately after it's done.

The performers are all absolutely the top-of-the-line in this repertoire: TASHI (recorded in 2000), The Group for Contemporary Music (1991 and 1996), and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (1994). The sound quality of the four different recordings is not materially different, and is as good as it needs to be. The performers bop and swing deliriously through rushes of hair-trigger counterpoint and big fat juicy chordal writing. Ursula Oppens is all over the piano like static electricity on a wool sweater. If you love chamber music for strings and piano, this is for you. If you love chamber music in general, then so is the Trios disc. If you've been kept from Wuorinen's music by the cut-and-paste rhetoric of lazy critics, do give one of these joyful collections a try.

American Record Guide, February 2007

Something strange happens to Charles Wuorinen-normally a creator of chaotic, rambunctious modernist compositions-when he writes for string quartet. Suddenly feeling the weight of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bartok on his shoulders, his penchant for prolix, perversely disquieting dysrhythmia gives way to traditional forms of musical argument. All of these works date from a period when Wuorinen was between 51 and 66 years old-an age normally reserved for the thorniest works of modernist composers (who typically slip into a pretty, reflective late period shortly after retirement age), but there's something about the weight of history that brings out the paleoconservative in the normally neocon Wuorinen. This music remind us of the hackneyed metaphor of chamber music as a spirited conversation among friends, as distinct from the sort of polemical argumentation typical of cable news programming and Wuorinen's other chamber-ensemble music.

This Naxos rerelease is part of their resurrection of the Group for Contemporary Music series, lately deleted by Koch, and is battling with their recent Druckman release for status as my most admired entry in the Naxos American Classics catalog. I sideswiped Wuorinen in my review of the Druckman (May/June 2006), but this is enough to make me want to take it all back. This is masterly music by a true craftsman, brilliantly played by the brightest stars in the new-music firmament: Fred Sherry, Ursula Oppens, Curtis Macomber, Ida Kafavian, and their distinguished colleagues.

Naxos may be a budget label, but that doesn't stop them from putting out high-end recordings of great music.

Carson Cooman
Living Music Journal, January 2001

In contrast to the mostly “uncommon” chamber groupings of the trio disc, the second release contains chamber works of more normal instrumental configurations – string quartet, piano quintet, and string sextet. The Brahmsian Piano Quintet (1993-94) is a highlight of this disc, compressing a great deal of passion and drama into its 25 minute span. The String Sextet (1988-89) shows a superb blending of instrumental color. All six string instruments end up completely intertwined – turning into one large super-instrument. Wuorinen has written four string quartets to date which range from the early 1970’s up to the present. The second quartet is in four movements, each containing numerous contrasts. Beginning in a world full of nervous energy, it moves gradually to a more settled (yet still active) landscape. The light and fleeting Divertimento (1982) also exists as a work for saxophone and piano. Wuorinen has frequently recast the musical material from one of his pieces into another – often resulting in a dramatic musical transformation.

The performances contained on both discs are superb. The Group for Contemporary Music encompasses many of New York City’s finest new music specialists, and they throw the full weight of their passions into Wuorinen’s work. Both TASHI and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center are well-known ensembles that also show their commitment in the fine performances they deliver.

These are two of the most essential recordings of 2006 for anyone interested in American music or significant works of chamber music and are strongly and urgently recommended.

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