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Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, September 2011

In a 2007 interview on release annotator Frank J. Oteri’s NewMusicBox website (, Pulitzer prize-winning composer Charles Wuorinen (b.1938) keenly argues views on popular culture, art versus entertainment, music criticism, and the language of critical review. Those who hold that he is an unrepentant elitist will certainly find fuel for that argument there, though I find—not that I think he would care a whit, given his views of music critics—that there is much sense in what he has to say. Part of me wishes, though, that I had read the interview after I finished writing the assessment of this new release. Near certain contempt, assuming notice is taken at all, is not a strong motivator.

Wuorinen is an éminence grise in American music, and a teacher of such fine composers as Michael Daugherty, Aaron Jay Kernis, Peter Lieberson, and Tobias Picker. I suspect that he may disapprove of the populist turn that each of these composers has taken, to some degree, in his work, for Wuorinen does not compromise with popular taste. He produces music that is strongly chromatic, complex, and rhythmically insistent but irregular. It is also clearly based upon organizing principals that allow even those unaware of the theoretical underpinning of the work to apprehend a structure. In a typical Wuorinen work, one usually knows where one is, and there is always enough going on to keep the receptive listener engaged, without concessions. Still, the composer clearly wants to communicate matters of importance to those willing to explore beyond mere entertainment value. What is important? First, music that travels new avenues of expression rather than rehashing old comfortable formulas. To that end, he co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962 and over the last 49 years has championed the works of an amazing array of important composers in concerts and recordings. He also reveres composers from the Baroque and earlier, with whose work he used to start all GCM concerts, and whose use of isometer still informs his work.

But what should one coming to Wuorinen’s music expect to hear? I’ll avoid words like angular or edgy in deference to the composer’s stated antipathy to their use, and attempt a probably equally inadequate visual analogy. Consider the artwork on the Naxos CD cover: detailed, dense, alternately dark and luminous, colorful, apparently chaotic. Like this false-color image of a nebula, Wuorinen’s music is a study in often stark contrasts, a product of arcane processes, and yet imposing and directly and emotionally communicative. Is it beautiful? If you must ask that question, it may be wise to sample before buying. I find, once familiar with the language, that the answer is unequivocally yes. But don’t expect Brahms.

This release is part of a series of CDs of Wuorinen’s music on Naxos, most by the Group for Contemporary Music. The performances are mostly by the artists who premiered the works. The one exception is the severe but lyrical 1971 First String Quartet, written for the old Chicago-based Fine Arts Quartet, but here played with great precision and greater affection by a quartet of soloists long associated with contemporary music and Wuorinen. Where the dedicatees emphasized the sternness of the writing, this group, while never stinting on rigor, finds the heart of the work as well.

The rest of the pieces on this CD date from the last four years. The manic, kaleidoscopic Scherzo (2007), a dizzying collage of disjoint dance rhythms, is brought vividly to life by Peter Serkin, no stranger himself to new music. He joins the British Brentano Quartet in the Second Piano Quintet (2008), a deeply poignant work of stark contrasts, with two expressive slow movements conflicting with shorter, rather impertinent fast ones. Underscoring that struggle, the up-tempo third movement abruptly must stand aside for the fourth, and concludes after that extended meditative movement is finished.

The most challenging work here for listeners—and I suspect performer—is the set of variations written for longtime collaborator violist Lois Martin. As in similar works that Wuorinen has written for string soloists (I haven’t heard the ones for various wind instruments), he seems to delight in teasing out the limits of what the instrument can do, juxtaposing extremes of the instrument’s range, and employing a multitude of advanced techniques without resorting to the cliché percussive stuff. The warmth of Martin’s tone and interpretation make this, in the end, a moving experience as well.

In fact, the sensitivity and virtuosity of the performers is a huge boon throughout, and the sound is clear and present without being in-your-face, as are many recordings of contemporary works. Good thorny stuff!

Laurence Vittes
Gramophone, July 2011

The beautiful, absorbing and utterly American music of Charles Wuorinen

This cleverly designed programme in Naxos’s “American Classics” series pairs Charles Wuorinen’s breakthrough First String Quartet from 1971 with world premiere recordings of Scherzo for piano (2007), Viola Variations and Piano Quintet No 2 (both 2008). Throughout, Wuorinen finds humanity in the otherwise forbidding abstract interplay of line and structure by the dexterity with which he uses it to find moments of beauty and intricate sounds that delight the ear. The result is absorbing on an intellectual plane while making thoroughly modern music that is compassionate, American and convincing in its tone.

The recent Second Piano Quintet captures the attention in five movements, each of which offers a glimpse of instrumental beauty heard from a different perspective, as if the listener spent each movement sitting next to a different player. The heart of the piece is its 11-minute slow movement, incomparably gorgeous in spots, preceded by two serious movements of crab-like workings-out and bookended by a divided scherzo of silvery movement which comes to an entirely logical but completely unexpected conclusion.

The musicians inhabit Wuorinen’s idiom entirely, adding their own inspired thoughts about bringing purely instrumental effects to bear, like the tawny bite of bows in the work’s opening bars. Peter Serkin adds an imprimatur of Wuorinen’s importance by playing the Scherzo for piano, the composer’s instrument, as if it were a newly discovered Goldberg Variation. The Viola Variations bristle with echoes of Strauss’s Don Quixote.

Frank J Oteri’s detailed critical apparatus speaks of magical musical creatures like “transformations of the generative material” and “microtonal pitch bendings”. Producer Judith Sherman contributes a non-distracting sense of space and a touch of warmth.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, July 2011

Three recent pieces and one early one by “unabashed modernist” Charles Wuorinen. Although Wuorinen is best known as a rabid and often extremely forceful serialist, a somewhat revised “truth” is starting to come out, namely that the composer never really rejected the notion of pitch centricity but developed a method of his own for the 12-tone technique. If you listen to this music with that in mind, it’s not hard to hear pitch emphasis poking through here and there, particularly in the late works, though I find it really far-fetched to consider Wuorinen a “disguised tonal composer”. It does seem that this collection is predicated at least partly on that notion.

2007’s Scherzo a noodle-y 11-minute piece for solo piano. The bubbly gestures have a certain elegance and are not excessively dissonant. The piece is about as amiable as this composer gets. Long-time advocate Peter Serkin gets the honors.

The early First Quartet (1971) is said to be “a watershed work in Wuorinen’s output”. It’s in three movements that, we are told, represent “a new approach to pitch centricity in a non-tonal chromatic framework”. This approach involves constant transformations of a “simple ground idea”, not always presented with great clarity and far from obvious without prompting. Some might find these kaleidoscopic changes dazzling, but I find them frustrating and hard to follow. In reality, a piece like this requires an entirely new listening strategy, not one related to what most listeners are familiar with. Uptowners delight in this sort of thing (or at least they used to), and if you’re still one of them, go for it. This was once recorded by the Group for Contemporary Music and issued in the early ’90s on a Koch CD (not available for comparison).

The much more recent Viola Variations (2008) continues this new approach, which began after the First Quartet and developed with a number of solo variation pieces for strings. The viola was left out back then, so here it is now. Again, it is hard to tell exactly what is being varied, though a constant changing of textures and types of music is clear enough. That’s not enough to make the experience satisfying for a “normal” listener, particularly as the changes take place every 10 seconds or so. Under the circumstances, it is the task of the notes to help the interested listener out. That doesn’t happen here.

The program closes with the Second Piano Quintet (2008). In four movements with the scherzo split into two parts and the slow, sprawling, often expressive slow movement “finale” sandwiched in between (making this a sort of “anti-finale”), this piece takes on the character of a “late work”, though interestingly instead of increasing dissonance level as was typical of tonal composer’s late works, this increases consonance. I don’t necessarily detect “repentance”, but this is an interesting development when thinking about this composer. There is also a somewhat somber slow II following the brief and somewhat hysterical opening. There is plenty of “minor key” allusion in this dark work (it even ends on a minor triad).

It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to evaluate this stubborn composer’s ultimate place in the canon, and in many ways this brilliantly played release might be a reasonable place to start. The amount of scholarship and score study required will be formidable, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a fact. Notes by American Music Center Composer Advocate Frank J Oteri, whose recent interview with Wuorinen appears on AMC’s NewMusicBox website.

Stephen Eddins, May 2011

Charles Wuorinen is not a composer whose music is likely to hold much appeal for casual listeners. He demands that audiences pay close attention to his rigorously modernist music, but for listeners who like unambiguously atonal music, his work can be exhilarating. Part of its appeal lies in the virtuoso ability that it requires of performers. Whatever one may think of the music itself, it would be hard to deny that it gives performers a chance to dazzle with old-fashioned bravura display. A prime example is the Scherzo for piano. Peter Serkin, an outstanding advocate of new music, does indeed deliver a dazzling performance of the hyper-kinetic, dramatically volatile piece. Another part of the appeal of Wuorinen’s work is its indisputable musicality. While his harmonic language and use of extreme dissonance may put some listeners off, the musical gestures always have a sense of inevitability, an expressive shapeliness, and even an idiomatic gracefulness. His writing is uncompromisingly complex, but at the same time it sounds like it’s driven as much by an urgent need for emotional communication as by cerebral logic. His music always seems to be saying something coherent, even though it may take intensely focused listening, and repeated listenings, to come to terms with his uncompromising level of discourse. Three of the pieces—the piano Scherzo, Viola Variations, and the Second Piano Quintet—were written in 2007 and 2008 and are recorded here for the first time, and the fourth piece, his First String Quartet, dates from 1971. The performers who join Serkin—violist Lois Martin, violinists Curtis Macomber and Jesse Mills, cellist Fred Sherry, and the Brentano String Quartet—are brilliant, seasoned veterans of the new music scene, and they tackle this daunting repertoire with absolute technical assurance and a transparent delight in the opportunities the music offers for emotional and dramatic expression. Naxos’ sound is clean, detailed, and nicely ambient.

Mark Sealey
MusicWeb International, April 2011

Naxos continues to wave the flag for contemporary American music in its ‘American Classics’ series. One of their latest involves this superb selection of music by the living American composer, Charles Wuorinen. He is as well known for his writings on music…as for his compositions. Here are four of them from almost forty years. They are played with great sensitivity and perception by Peter Serkin, Lois Martin and an augmented Brentano String Quartet.

Wuorinen’s output is distinguished by being prolific and varied as well as consistently good. His music is characterised by uncompromisingly modernist atonality, almost severe structural rigour and a complexity in his use of rhythm. These combine to make his music generally very approachable; perhaps not least because his voice is so distinctive.

The Scherzo for piano from 2007 is expertly played by Peter Serkin in a close, intense performance. Serkin gives the music not only to ‘breathe’, but also to expand its chest and flex its muscles. The result: we are persuaded of the energy which flows through and out of Wuorinen’s music and—thanks to Serkin’s evenness of approach—the purpose of that energy. In this performance he leads the music where it’s meant to go. It’s the shortest piece here but one which—typically—condenses a wealth of musical ideas. Serkin conveys them to us with just the right amount of intensity yet doesn’t forget that the scherzo is essentially a lighter movement, allied to the dance. He fuses these qualities with a virtuosity that is at times quite remarkable and which was so important to the composer.

The First String Quartet dates from 1971 and is the only work on this Naxos CD previously recorded—in 2006, on Music & Arts Programs Of America (4707) with the Fine Arts String Quartet. In three short movements it, too, is heated and concentrated—almost to the point of sultriness and fragmentation. The central, slow, movement with crotchet = 60 (all Wuorinen’s tempo markings appear here) is twice as long as the outer two. Yet the Brentano labour no points, nor do they inhibit the momentum of the piece. Their sound is immediate. Miking was close and the essence of the string sound has taken precedence over a more generalised ‘impression’. That’s good; it adds to our appreciation of Wuorinen’s musical ideas. At the same time, it must introduce difficulties in performance…how much are the players working in concert; to what extent are they conveying the music’s impact through separation? The balance in this case is ideal. Our overall response is to the music’s urgency; it’s an urgency which arises out of the innate sound made by the contributing instruments, in addition to any thematic imperative.

It’s the sound of the viola, too, that drives the Viola Variations from 2008. This is played by Lois Martin, who commissioned this virtuoso piece. Wuorinen seems to be ‘studying’ the registers, ranges, articulations and textures of which the viola is capable. Yet after this lengthy piece is over, you are left with the feeling of having explored this melodic, decidedly 12-tone, work. This is due in no small part to Martin’s sensitive playing.

By the time you get to the Second Piano Quintet also written in 2008, Wuorinen’s twin emphases on drama and precision are evident. Again, structure—the alternation of both fast and slow and long and short movements—is important. Startlingly, the fast third movement is ‘resumed’ after the conclusion of the fourth. But this is neither trickery, nor spurious experiment. It’s a thematic turn of events which adds to the sense of energy that’s so usual and effective in Wuorinen’s work but never in ways which suggest that the composer is ‘reaching’. He’s always in control. Here, again, the players are fully in touch with why and how the music works as it does.

All in all this is a most satisfying CD. The playing—both in terms of technique and interpretation—is convincing, gently persuasive and yet reserved to the degree that it needs to be in order to avoid out of place advocacy. The recording is top notch; and the booklet that walks through the works is insightful and informative. One test of a successful CD of new music is that it makes you want to explore other works by the same composer. This is just such a disc.

Grego Applegate Edwards
Gapplegate Music Review, April 2011

Naxos has done a fine job producing and making available at budget prices state-of-the-art recordings of modern American composers in an extended series of individual volumes. The music of Charles Wuorinen is a good example. By my count the CD up for discussion today is at least the fifth one released, and it’s a good one.

Chamber Music (Naxos 8.559694) covers three works from the past decade, all getting their world-premier recording, and one classic work from 1971, the First String Quartet. If the new works represented are any indication of an overall trend, Charles Wuorinen seems to be returning to and rethinking his stance on the modified high-modernism that made his earlier reputation and in which he showed such brilliance. By around 1971 he had received a Pulitzer Prize for his electronic work Times Ecomium, was an influential member of the music faculty at Columbia University, and was well-represented in recordings of his music. His String Quartet was made available in a Turnabout recording released at the time, and it remains an excellent example of the logic and lyricism he brought to the sound and operating procedures of the serial/post-serial music then current. The work wears well, as the fine version of the piece on the Naxos release attests.

As time went on Wuorinen modified his compositional stance somewhat to incorporate more conventionally tonal elements and linear form that recalled the styles of the classical past. His music remained seminal but perhaps the predominance he enjoyed in the early ’70s became a lesser factor as other composers and other stylistic trends came to the fore. But he has continued to create music that I believe will hold up well in the years to come.

And so we move on to today and the three later works included in the present volume. They are very well-performed by pianist Peter Serkin, celloist Fred Sherry, violist Lois Martin and the Brentano String Quartet. The centerpiece surely is the Second Piano Quintet (2008), a four movement work of great energy and expressiveness, with an unusual return of the third movement at the end of the work.

I will not attempt to describe the working means by which Wuorinen creates his music, past or present. I leave you to the excellent liner notes accompanying the disk. For the lay listener, what matters ultimately is the modernist beauty that combines stark, somewhat severe passages with passages of great momentum and cumulative kinetic flow.

Wuorinen continues to be one of the most important compositional voices active today. He and Elliot Carter form the Yin and Yang of contemporary American modernism in many ways. This recording combines exceptional compositions with superior performances. Anyone interested in modern music should hear it. Very much recommended.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

Born in the United States in 1938, Charles Wuorinen started life in the world of tonality before moving his highly prolific output to the forefront of cutting-edge modernity.  He had made that move by the time of his First String Quartet and was now in the mode audiences relate to Schoenberg and his acolytes. The outer movements, around the same length, frame the central one that moves between hyperactivity and sparsely scored stagnation. To Wuorinen’s large and enthusiastic circle, this will be familiar territory, the outstanding quartet of Curtis Macomber, Jesse Mills, Lois Martin and Fred Sherry, bringing much inner clarity to the interplay between instruments. The remaining works are world premiere recordings of works written between 2007 and 2008 performed by the same artists who gave the first concert performance. The Scherzo for piano is, in modern terms, a virtuoso showpiece, with considerable dexterity required in passages where the music hurtles forward, Peter Serkin seemingly making light of the demands. The Viola Variations belong to a family of works that has already seen piano, violin and cello variations written over a period of thirty-four years. It is another score full of technical demands that fly around the instrument, Lois Martin’s fruity lower register accentuating the frequent journey’s from top to bottom. A specialist of the contemporary scene, she makes the work sound very inviting in its own sphere. Serkin returns to join the Brentano String Quartet in the Second Piano Quintet. The most metrically regular of all the works on the disc, it will no doubt sound very difficult to the listener. Good sound quality, with a few extraneous noises.

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.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group