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William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, January 2011

George Walker is one the most senior living American composers, having been on the musical scene since the 1940s. He writes in a somewhat dissonant manner, but is not without expressiveness. The recording under consideration here covers several aspects of his output and is especially interesting for containing some of his recent work.

The String Quartet No. 2 starts off plaintively and quickly becomes contrapuntal. The second movement emphasizes plucked strings, but the piece really gets going in the third movement, which is more melodic than the first two and full of pizzicati. The last movement contains an interesting fugue. It should be mentioned that the Lyric for Strings, also on this disc, is a movement from Walker’s earlier Quartet No. 1 and is still his best-known piece. It is serious and quite moving.

The most interesting work here is the Poem for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble, to words by T.S. Eliot. This is very solid, with an advanced, but impressive solo part and a fascinating use of the instruments, especially the piano. The use of Sprechstimme by the main soloist and accompaniment by two other soloists is also well done.

The most recent item on the disc is the Modus for Chamber Ensemble. It is in four sections, with two guitars prominent. They definitely add to the atmosphere. A solo flute is also in evidence. Each movement builds on the previous one so that the last produces a true feeling of culmination. Unfortunately, equal praise cannot be given to the Five Fancies.

Of the five Walker songs recorded here, two definitely stand out. “Never Saw a Moon” uses programmatic elements in the accompaniment to support the vocal part and has an Emily Dickinson feeling. The Wyatt song “And Will Thou Leave Me Thus” uses different intervals to mirror the emotions of the text.

All of the ensembles heard on this recording play very competently and with great dedication to the music. Soprano Janet Stasio is especially notable. One could hardly imagine anyone else with a better understanding of the music. Patricia Green is also fine in her three songs, although James Martin is not nearly so good. As the recordings were made in several different places, recording quality is somewhat variable.

Cinemusical, August 2010

Walker’s music can be difficult to pinpoint at first because he has such a unique style but his is a voice that combines serialist, neo-classicist, and African-American musics into an often fastening blend of textures and sounds. The works presented here by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer provide an overview of chamber music that dates back to 1946 and features music as well from the past decade. The bulk of the ample 74-minute playing time is devoted to two works.

The first of these is Walker’s String Quartet No. 2. The quartet dates from 1968 and has been since revised. The Son Sonora String Quartet has performed this revised version several times prior to making this recording. The work is cast into a single track that features four sections. The opening movement is a rather intense work whose parts seem to spiral off uncontrollably at times. The second movement focuses more on rhythmic syncopation in astringent harmonies. Pizzicato distinguishes the third movements texture as tone rows are outlined against close intervallic punctuations. The final movement features a well-crafted fugal section with a lyrical singing section for contrast. Walker’s serialist approach trends towards a more pointillistic distribution of ideas that constantly push outward and are drawn back close together throughout the work’s playing time. The piece is a dramatically engaging work whose final minutes are as intricately wrought and emotionally powerful as atonal music can hope to be precisely because the music seems to flirt with traditional harmony. The angst of the late 1960s could certainly be superimposed on this rather intense work that is relentless in its intensity.

The Poem comes from 1987 and its text is based on poetry by T.S. Eliot. There are a number of works of this type in American 20th century music, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 comes immediately to mind though the style of the music is closer to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire combined perhaps with a little Ives. Walker’s Poem deserves a place alongside that classic work and it is good that Naxos has saw fit to include it here. In the nearly two decades that separate the two works, Walker seems to have continued to explore serialism and here focuses a great deal on the variety of unique textures and sounds that he can create within the chamber ensemble. The vocal line is mostly lyric with few angular moments almost lullaby-like in quality at times. It is often set against a variety of instrumental sounds reminiscent of George Crumb’s style. Walker’s music is extremely dramatic and engaging precisely because of this...Three small ensemble pieces follow the Poem. The first of these is the Lyric for Strings. The 1946 piece is a popular one in its orchestral version but this is a version for string quartet in a more intimate performance here. This is a warmly Americana work of gorgeous beauty reminiscent of Barber that certainly deserves more recordings than it currently lists in the catalogue. The Five Fancies (for clarinet and piano) from 1974 find Walker exploring variation technique in a musical language that is already moving away from strict serialism though one of the variations is serial. Modus is the most recent chamber work on the release. The work focuses on rhythm and repetition of a quick figure that gets shuffled through the odd ensemble that includes mandolin. It is an interesting work that further explores Walker’s command of fascinating instrumental combinations and at times feels like it could veer off into a mandolin concerto.

The disc closes with five songs the earliest of which is Response (1940) and the latest being the final two tracks of early texts set for baritone and piano dating from 2002 and 2004 (listed as Two Songs for Baritone). They all feature beautifully-conceived lyrical melodic lines that are more through-composed with precedents in the songs of Ives. Piano accompaniment tends to be fairly sparse in each of these songs providing gentle harmonic colors, filigrees of improvisation-like runs, or rhythmic chordal punctuations. The more recent songs feature more traditional harmonic structures that shift into more open intervals in the piano line while the melodic line has an almost folk-like quality to is great to have these works available to a wider audience.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2010

Leading the double life of a concert pianist and composer, George Walker is among that faction of American composers whose music roots are imbedded in the Second Viennese School. Born in New York City in 1922, his major concert debut at the keyboard came at the age of twenty-three, at much the same time as he completed the Lyric for Strings. Numerous awards, grants and commissions have created a sizable opus, the present survey of chamber music and songs written over almost sixty years. As we hear in the Lyric for Strings he wrote tonal music in his early years, and I would be happy to place this beside Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings. But that style had long since been supplanted with naked atonality twenty years later for the acerbic and dramatic immediacy of the Second String Quartet, a score in one movement containing a series of moods, Ligeti would spring to mind as a European counterpart. Scored for soprano and instrumental ensemble, the Poem from 1987 sees a vocal line where melody plays a role set against a fragmented accompaniment. Five Pieces for clarinet and piano with four hands is in the world of modernity stripped back to its basics. Composed when almost eighty, Modus is a work I really like, his use of atonality showing a welcome departure from a Schoenbergian dependence, the tricky rhythms and original timbres are invigorating. Finally we have five songs, three for mezzo  and two for baritone, all accompanied by the composer. Here we discover Walker in melodic mood, and highly enjoyable. The whole venture belongs to the composer, as a performer, record producer and sound engineer, and he is equally successful in everything. With that degree of involvement we can take the performances as benchmark.

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