Review of Affirmations CD

INKPOT#101 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: WILSON Affirmations. Various/Wilson (Albany)


INKPOT#101 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: WILSON Affirmations. Various/Wilson (Albany)

Richard WILSON (b.1941)

Four Works by Richard Wilson

Civilization and its Discontents
Transfigured Goat

Affirmations: David Fedele flute · Allen Blustine clarinet · Rolf Schulte violin ·
Dorothy Lawson cello · Blanca Uribe piano · Intercalations: Blanca Uribe piano · Civilization and Its Discontents: Stephen Johns tuba · Transfigured Goat: Mary Ann Hart mezzo-soprano · Allen Blustine clarinet · Richard Lalli baritone · Richard Wilson piano

[65:39] full-price

by William Beh

If you feel that music should have catchy tunes, harmonic chords and quaver-beat rhythms, consider yourself… warned. On the other hand, if you accept that music can be a process guided by the musical intuition of the composer, a journey which is more important than the destination, and yet retaining a sense of elegance and humour – well, then this is surely worth an audition.

This new disc is a godsend, especially to those for whom the name Richard Wilson elicits no small amount of puzzled frowns and head-scratching. Wilson is, among other academic achievements, the Composer-in-Residence of the American Symphony Orchestra and tenant of the Mary Conover Mellon Chair in Music at Vassar. Wilson is also one whose music transcends the potential intellectualism, blinding incomprehensibility and crashing unimaginativeness afeared of so many academicians.

This is the third of his albums on the Albany label (TROY074 and TROY333 being the first two). Like them, it is a conspectus of various solo and chamber works in juxtaposition, a representative selection of works. Specifically, Affirmations is a quintet for two winds, two strings and piano; Intercalations for solo piano; Civilization and Its Discontents for solo tuba; and Transfigured Goat (don’t ask, I’ll explain later) for soprano and baritone voice accompanied by clarinet and piano.

Richard Wilson. Picture from the Richard Wilson Homepage

Affirmations is a comprehensive three-movement work which, in the composer’s own words, “the music of someone whose chromatic style ran counter to current trends.” He affirms this with a brilliant, if unorthodox, writing for the curious combination of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

The first two movements are intriguing enough, but the last movement Doleful is a revelation of dissonant timbres making a splendid sound. The ensemble is crisp and rhythmically buoyant, especially Blanca Uribe on the piano. The acoustics of Skinner Recital Hall where this (and the rest of the works) was recorded do not flatter the blend of instruments, resulting in a slight (and niggling) loss of resolution.

An intercalation is the extra day in a leap year in order to adjust the calendar to the twelve physical months of a solar year: the 29th of February. Here, Intercalations becomes a symbolic depiction of the “extra” day which stands outside the system. It has four movements (Interspace, Interplay, Interlacing and Interaction), each with its own nature. Blanca Uribe performs this with a great deal of poetry and articulation.

Civilization and Its Discontents is not much more avant-garde than the name seems to suggest at first. In truth, the title, as well as each individual movement, comes from Freud’s famous essay of 1930:

1.    Overcoming the Forces of Nature

2.    Soap as a Measure of Civilization

3.    Love, Necessity and the Death Instinct

4.    The Aggressive Impulse Thwarted

5.    Bad Conscience and the Superego

Stephen Johns, who originally premiered the work in March 1996, renders the spiky vigour of the music with aplomb, even if the rotund tones of the tuba intrinsically just fails to raise the emotional temperature past a balmy coolness. Nonetheless, this is a delightful miniature (6 minutes and 48 seconds) which should endear itself to the heavy brass community. After all, it’s not everyday that a tubist gets to bring down civilization as we know it, even if only in a musically philosophical sense.

Transfigured Goat was written as a curtain-raiser for the opera Æthelred the Unready, featuring two unnamed characters, a man and a woman, with clarinet and piano. The text, which has unfortunately been omitted in the liner notes, was adapted by Wilson himself from the plays of Joe Orton – rewritten and scrambled with the side-effect of parody. Mary Ann Hart and Richard Lalli (who also premiered the work in November 1996) are a characterful, provocative pair, delivering their lines with more than just a tang of humour. The accompaniment is unflashy and warm, but the spotlight here is surely on the vocalists.

This is an enterprising, entertaining anthology, and the idiom is more than accessible to those who approach with an open mind. Wilson provides his own succinct notes, giving a short history of each work without an excess of detail, but sufficient for the listener to get a toehold on the music and go on to make his or her own discovery. Not all music should pander to the listener – sometimes, it should make its own challenge, and this is one such collection.

Also Recommended: Those who wish to explore the music of Richard Wilson further can take a look at another recent release featuring his First Symphony, performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under James Sedares (Koch 3-7483-2, full price). Also included on this album are three chamber works: Gnomics for woodwind trio, the song-cycle Tribulations and the Viola Sonata. Those with a taste for the adventurous will find much of interest which is outside the scope of discussion here; cynics would just find more of the same.



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