Notes from the underground

In honor of this week’s performance by the Berkshire Symphony of her “Symphony No. 1,” I have decided to review a CD with works on it by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. In all honesty, I had never heard any of her music before I decided to review this disc, but I had been told that she is a wonderful composer who writes in a variety of styles. This is apparent from the CD on the “American Masters” series (CD Z85 3), which features works both by Zwilich and by Eleanor Cory.

Zwilich has mastered many of the techniques developed in the Twentieth Century, and uses them with an extreme self-assurance. One finds extreme dissonances in her music along with luscious, quasi-tonal melodies, as well as everything in between. This music is, truly, “post-modern,” in that it does not force anything — she uses sounds of the past to create a new overall picture. Many composers do this, but Zwilich does it well.

The first work on the disc, Zwilich’s “Chamber Symphony,” is a symphony in concept, not instrumentation. Scored for flute doubling piccolo, clarinet doubling bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano, Zwilich attempts to create a “symphonic” sound by alternating between doublings and solo voices. This is a highly successful technique; I was thinking in terms of a symphony and the work plays along with that notion. The work uses many consonant harmonies and is structured in a fairly formal style, so it is thus the most familiar-sounding work of Zwilich’s on the disc.

The “String Quartet” is a very wonderful work, and my favorite piece on this CD. Having just listened to John Corigliano’s String Quartet, I would not be surprised to find that he took this work as a major influence. The opening of Zwilich’s piece is eerie and very introductory, with all of the basic materials of the following movements built into it. All of the movements blend into each other, but it becomes clear as you listen which movement you are in, as each has a distinct character. The second is very active, the third is more lyrical, and the fourth is, not surprisingly, reflective. I could compare this work to some of the Schnittke chamber works, but Zwilich’s material is far more blended, and less obviously separate.

The “Sonata in Three Movements” for the violin and piano is a virtuosic work for both instruments in a multi-faceted idiom. Written for her husband, it captures the wonderful possibilities for interplay between the two instruments. It captures the obvious love that Mrs. Zwilich has for her late husband, who died in the late 1970’s.

Eleanor Cory is not as well-known as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, but she is a fine composer nonetheless. I came upon her only because of the Zwilich recordings, and I am happy to have made this discovery. Her music is more aggressive than Zwilich’s, with a sense of searching for extremes. Cory’s music seems very extroverted or very introverted, with little middle ground.

An excellent example of this style is the second work of hers on the disc, “Apertures,” a virtuosic piano piece which alternates between fast and slow versions of the same material. This creates an effective continuity to the work but it is also seems to stagnate at times. I enjoyed this piece, but was not as interested in it as much as her other works on the disc, or any of Zwilich’s works.

More stirring was the first work of Cory’s on this disc, “Profiles,” which is scored for clarinet, cello, and piano. Cory excels in creating interesting textures in this work, made possible by the distinct sounds of the three instruments from three different families. I particularly enjoyed the second movement, an Adagio, which was extraordinarily beautiful.

“Designs,” for piano trio, closes the CD in an effective blend of varied styles. This work is a fitting end to this disc, with its amalgam of influences and sounds, constructed beautifully by two excellent composers of our time.

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