Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Grant Chu Covell
La Folia, April 2010

Programmed pretty much in reverse chronological order, amiable tunes (Gershwiniana, Three Folksong Transformations) retreat into poignant lyricism (Elegy on the Name ‘Dmitri Shostakovich’) thence to gritty atonality (Duo for Violin and Cello, Piano Trio). The decades’ changes reveal Gerber’s having forsaken academic stringency for tonal immediacy absent any obvious regret. Nikkanen is an amiable tour guide. The three-violin Gershwin ruminations and viola elegy on D-S-C-H are short and sweet. At 17:27 the 1968 piano trio registers as the heftiest, most fully developed item. For this listener, the trio’s serial shenanigans felt like a homecoming. Three Folksong Transformations and Notturno, also for piano trio, weigh in as comparatively incidental.

Robert R. Reilly, January 2010

Steven Gerber’s new Naxos CD of chamber music (8.559618)—Piano Trio, Duo, Elegy, and Notturno—is a fascinating traversal of this composer’s stylistic journey, as it contains works spanning the period from 1968 to 2001. It serves as a miniature musical autobiography. I would first direct readers who are unfamiliar with Gerber’s music to his orchestral works, like the Symphony No. 1 on Chandos, the wonderful Clarinet Concerto on Arabesque, or the cello and violin concertoson Koch, because they are major works.

The Naxos CD contains shorter compositions and includes some real jewels, like the exquisite Three Pieces for Two Violins and the Gershwiniana for Three Violins. In fact, almost all of the nine pieces here are jewels. They are works from the inner world of the human spirit. As such, they are highly contemplative and concentrated, and sometimes spare, but no less achingly beautiful for that. It is no surprise when Gerber says that one of them had its origins as a study.

The early pieces, according to Gerber, show the influences of Bartók and Elliott Carter. He moved away from that chromatic style to what is now popularly called neo-Romanticism. Consistently, these works show that Gerber has never been afraid of writing a highly exposed melodic line; he has dared simplicity and achieved a kind of stillness. This makes it all the more intriguing and significant when he goes on to develop his material. This CD is an invaluable supplement for the Gerber fan and a highly attractive proposition for anyone attracted to the chamber instrument combinations Gerber employs. The performances are first rate.

Carson Cooman
Fanfare, January 2010

American composer Steven R. Gerber (b. 1948) is a resident of New York City and was educated at Haverford College and Princeton University; he studied with Robert Parris, J. K. Randall, Earl Kim, and Milton Babbitt. Gerber’s orchestral music appears on previous releases on the Chandos, Koch, and Arabesque labels, and has been reviewed quite positively in this publication (24:2 and 24:3). This new Naxos release contains chamber music for three or fewer players from the years 1967–2001. Gerber notes in the booklet that this spans the majority of his compositional career to date. Like the vast majority of composers of his generation, Gerber’s early music was composed in an atonal idiom, and in the 1980s and 1990s, his language began to take on more traditional, tonal characteristics. The previous CD releases have focused on later (“tonal”) pieces, so this album is a chance to hear a bit of his earlier work.

The first two (very brief) pieces on the album are based upon pre-existing source material. Gershwiniana (1999) is a suite for three violins in which each of the three movements consists of transformations of motives and fragments from different pieces by Gershwin. The second, Three Folksong Transformations (2001), applies the same principles to American folk songs in a tiny piano trio. In both works, the use of the source material is quite oblique, but the resulting works are very appealing entirely on their own terms.

Three Pieces (1997) for two violins consists of three, simple movements of contrasting characters. Both Notturno (1996) for piano trio and Elegy (1991) for viola are darkly lyrical single movements that recall the moods of late Schnittke or middle-period Górecki. Written for the wedding of composer Michael Dellaira, Three Songs without Words (1996) are very brief miniatures for violin arranged from Gerber’s earlier settings of Yeats for violin and soprano.

The disc ends with three pieces from the late 1960s: Fantasy (1967), Duo (1969), and Piano Trio (1968). All three are vastly more thorny than any of the preceding music and show far less personality/unique style than Gerber’s later works. Fantasy is the least-interesting piece on the disc, resembling a host of other forgettable unaccompanied violin solos from the same era. In the booklet notes, Gerber states that Duo was inspired by the dialectic of Elliott Carter’s second string quartet, an important influence on him at that time. The Piano Trio was the composer’s first large-scale work and he describes it as “a young man’s piece…lacking emotional and technical restraint.” Though it goes on too long, it is not without appealing sections, particularly in the slow second movement.

With the exception of Piano Trio, all of the pieces on this release are quite short, and show an admirable ability to avoid overextension of the musical ideas’ potential. Students looking for short contemporary pieces to add to string recitals would find this disc of particular interest (especially the most recent pieces). The recorded performances are all excellent, and the sound is clear and appealing. Although the discs of Gerber’s orchestral music provide a broader and more ambitious introduction to his work, this release is certainly recommended to those interested in hearing well-written American chamber music.

David W Moore
American Record Guide, November 2009

View PDF  

Patric Standford
Music & Vision, October 2009

Steven Gerber is now sixty, born in Washington DC and currently a resident in New York City from where he makes frequent journeys to Russia, a country in which he is perhaps the most frequently performed American composer…the recordings were all made in New York in October 2002 and are of impressive quality.

Edith Eisler
Strings Magazine, October 2009

The nine short compositions recorded here give an overview of 30 years of the 61-year-old composer Steven R. Gerber’s many-faceted works. The disc offers five virtuosos, including Cho-Liang Lin, an opportunity to display their splendid tone and technique. The acclaimed American violinist Kurt Nikkanen excels on solo violin in the slow, dreamy “Three Songs Without Words” (1986) and the intense, brilliant “Fantasy” (1967), as well as on a solo viola part in the melancholy “Elegy on the Name ‘Dmitri Shostakovich’” (1991). Lin joins him in the calm “Three Pieces for Two Violins” (1997), and all three violinists—including Cyrus Beroukhim of the award-winning Fountain Ensemble—team up on “Gershwiniana” (1999), which is more Gerber than Gershwin. Nikkanen and the extraordinary cellist Brinton Averil Smith bring out the changing moods and colors of the virtuosic “Duo for Cello and Violin” (1969). They reunite with pianist Sara Davis Buechner on “Three Folksong Transformations” (2001), “Notturno” (1996), and “Piano Trio” (1968), in which the many contrasting sections are separated by rests, but the players maintain continuity while underlining the differences.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, September 2009

Naxos’s ever-burgeoning “American Classics” series has now reached the work of Steven R. Gerber with this disc of diverse chamber works dating from 1967 up to 2001. Not having heard any of his music previously this proved to be a good way to sample his work within this genre. Two things struck me immediately; firstly, whilst the instruments called for are the most traditional of all chamber instruments—strings and piano, the sounds that Gerber conjures from them are far from standard. Yet it would be quite wrong to imply from that that he ‘distorts’ these instruments—there is no Cage-like “prepared piano” effects here. Rather the choice of register, instrumental and timbral combinations, and musical layering results in a very unique sound world. Secondly, Gerber is indeed fortunate to have this disc performed by such an elite group of players. The technical demands he makes of them could have resulted in performances of far less assurance and panache in the hands of lesser players. Here all are virtuosi in their own right as well as sounding thoroughly committed to the sound-world Gerber creates.

In his own informative and interesting liner notes Gerber points out that the programme of this CD moves from later works first to earliest works last…the external musical influences are the least digested—some Messiaen-inspired birdsong leaps out of the Piano Trio about halfway through the first movement only to be overwhelmed by some thunderously modernistic passages. As he admits himself these are clearly young man’s music—a real sense of gauntlets being cast down. There is a dogged determination here NOT to write any phrase or harmony that could possibly be mistaken for being diatonic. By the time of the later works (represented earlier on this disc!) Gerber seems much more at ease with the idea of writing music of an essentially lyrical melodic nature. But there are traits here that Gerber continued to develop. He has a penchant for writing string parts cruelly high—I can’t stress strongly enough how well these passages are handled by the players. In the Blues-Etude which forms the final movement of Gershwiniana there is a manic cat and mouse chase by the 3 violins which must be devilish to perform and littered with the possibility of going horribly horribly wrong. But here the players toss it off with exactly the kind of ovation-inducing insouciance that Gerber must have envisaged…in fact each of these later works is a masterful study in concision.

Given the variety and brevity of much of the music here everyone will have their own personal favourites. For me the two groups of “arrangements” that open the disc gave the greatest pleasure together with the haunting Elegy on the name Dmitri Shostakovich. Interestingly Gerber notes that this latter is his most-played work and I can understand why. In its brief four and a half minutes it encompasses a powerfully wide range of musical emotion but here I feel the compositional technique is serving the music. Kurt Nikkanen proves himself to be as adept on the viola as he is elsewhere on this disc on violin. Because of the diversity of the music on offer it is hard for a listener new to Gerber’s music such as myself to know for sure where the true musical spirit of the composer lies…there is enough air around the instruments to avoid the sound becoming claustrophobic…diverse modern chamber works splendidly performed.

The Infodad Team, July 2009

The new, very well-played CD of his chamber music spans most of Gerber’s compositional life, including works written over a period of more than 30 years. The earliest pieces here are the least tonal and most derivative: Fantasy for Solo Violin (1967), a virtuoso display piece; Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1968), which harks back to Bartók and requires both technical virtuosity and the performers’ willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves; and Duo for Violin and Cello (1969), in which Gerber consciously adapts Elliott Carter’s technique of making each instrument a separate personality and having them argue or ignore each other before eventually reconciling. All these works are interesting to hear and challenging (sometimes very challenging) to play, but they are less indicative of Gerber’s personal style than the later, shorter and generally more tonal works on this CD. Elegy on the Name ‘Dmitry Shostakovich’ for Solo Viola (1991) is a fascinating exploration that eventually incorporates the earlier composer’s signature “DSCH” motif to fine effect. Notturno for Violin, Cello and Piano (1996) is dark, strong and (as Gerber himself observes) rather Brahmsian—and conveys a real sense of depth. The four remaining pieces offered here are all collections of miniatures: each contains three brief movements, some barely longer than one minute. But Gerber does a great deal in these short forms. Three Songs without Words (1986), a solo-violin arrangement of some Gerber songs with words, is simple and emotionally straightforward. Three Pieces for Two Violins (1997) nicely mixes dissonance with lyricism, eventually subsiding into the latter. Gershwiniana (1999), for three violins, and Three Folksong Transformations for Violin, Cello and Piano (2001) both take skeletal elements of tunes and re-harmonize them while thoroughly changing their moods. The final movement of the Gershwin-based piece, called “Blues-Etude,” is especially compelling. Gerber does not adopt tonality on a wholesale basis in any of these works, but he flirts with it often enough—and uses it frequently enough as a jumping-off or concluding point—to show that he has thought its implications through carefully and found some personal and very effective ways to adapt it to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2009

I read on the disc’s back insert a quotation I wrote many years ago, and it reminds of my unswerving opinion that Steven Gerber is one of today’s most important composers. Born in Washington D.C. in 1948, Gerber’s mentors include Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim, though his style of composition that has been evolving over the last forty years and shows no allegiance to anyone. The present release offers an overview of his chamber music through much of his career, his earliest, the Fantasy for solo violin, written when he was nineteen and toying with a mix of tonality and atonality in a short virtuoso showpiece. The Piano Trio was written a few months later with an unashamedly commitment to pure atonality with writing that makes huge demands on the technique of the performers. In two movements, and often aggressive, it has a passion for the long held notes that form a backdrop to solo hyperactivity. It is played with suitable intensity by the violin of Kurt Nikkanen—also the soloist in the Fantasy—with Brinton Smith and Sara Davis Buechner as the distinguished cellist and pianist. The following year the Duo for violin and cello comes from the same style, but turn the clock forward sixteen years to the Three Songs Without Words, and we find a total rethink, his astringent atonality mellowed in a listener-friendly lyric tonality. The 1991 Elegy on the name ‘Dmitri Shostakovich’  fully embraces modern tonality, and takes a further step in that direction for the dark but beautiful Notturno of 1996 for piano trio. One year later Gerber was taking a look at minimalism in the Three pieces for two violins, before he comes to the naughty Gershwiniana—using three well-known melodies by Gershwin—and from 2001 the Three Folksong Transformations. Where have such immaculate performances been since their recording in 2002? They serve the composer well, and I much commend the disc to you.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group