Review By Joe Milicia
Having recorded works of German Romanticism and Modernism (Schubert, Schumann, Schoenberg) for Cedille, Jennifer Koh and Reiko Uchida now turn to American music for a fascinating program of three violin-piano suites and a single-movement arrangement of fragments by Carl Ruggles. Someone could doubtless write a rich musicological study of the interrelations of the works on this program and of the "Americanness" of each, tracing a line from the earlier mavericks, Ruggles and Lou Harrison, to those prominent composers of today, John Adams and Jennifer Higdon. The CD booklet essay notes that Adams considers Harrison (who, according to other sources, went through a Ruggles phase early in his career) an influence on his own music, and that Adams introduced Harrison's music to Koh, who herself hears Adams' influence upon at least one movement of the Higdon suite.
The CD program opens with its most contemporary piece (2006), the quirky and playful String Poetic, which might almost be thought of as a miniature companion to the composer's 2002 Concerto for Orchestra. Written expressly for Koh (who also recently premiered a Higdon concerto for violin, chorus and orchestra called Singing Rooms), the five-movement piece has as its bookends a pair of fast, short movements called "Jagged Climb" and "Climb Jagged," featuring the edgy sul ponticello sound on the violin (bowing at the bridge) and the muted, occasionally thudding sound of "stopped" piano strings. (The program notes don't explain exactly how the piano is "prepared.") In between we get a Nocturne, subtitled "gentle, serene, and lyrical"; an even slower and much moodier "Blue Hills of Mist"'; and "Maze Mechanical," labeled "Precise, like a machine." The Nocturne is utterly calm rather than rhapsodic; the "Blue Hills of Mist" — the longest movement — again features muted piano strings and at times does tend toward the rhapsodic in the violin part, though much of it is more like a dazed wandering, against mysterious patterns of repeated single notes in the piano. The steady-paced, brisk "Maze Mechanical" is a sort of perpetual motion machine, with moments that remind me of Paul Hindemith; it's in sufficient contrast to the even faster and much more raucous "Climb Jagged."
Carl Ruggles' Mood is actually a piece created after the composer's death, from sketches for an unfinished work for violin and piano c. 1918. (The composer died in 1971, nearly a centenarian.) The reconstruction is by his friend, the pianist John Kirkpatrick, most famous today for his championing of the music of Charles Ives. Andrea Lamoreaux's booklet essay calls Mood "a short, atmospheric piece that may or may not reflect Ruggles' original intention," making us wonder why Cedille didn't label the piece "Ruggles-Kirkpatrick." In any case, the 6-minute work, dissonant but not thorny or violent like some of Ruggles' orchestral music, is moody enough, in a way difficult to pinpoint. It could be a haunting encore piece after a program of complex modern music. Koh calls it an "incredible, unpolished jewel."
Lou Harrison's 1988 Grand Duo (at 31 minutes the longest work on the program) has its own quirkiness. The titles of the first and fourth movements — "Prelude" and "Air" — suggest a baroque suite, but the others seem more eccentric — "Stampede," "A Round (Annabel & April's)," and "Polka" — until we consider that "Stampede" suggests the medieval "Estampie" and a Round is at least a cousin to a Rondo or Rondeau. (As for the Polka, baroque suites typically include or end with a jig of some sort.) Of course, with Harrison we may expect Asian influences as well, and the moderately paced Prelude, in particular, features scales exotic to the Western ear: we hear an amalgam of Bach and the East as fascinating as Villa-Lobos' mergings of Leipzig with Rio de Janeiro. The brisker, tricky-rhythmed "Stampede" is by no means a gallop, but it is both vigorously dancelike and serious, with exciting forward propulsion. The soulful Air, nearly 11 minutes in length, is the heart of the work, and the concluding Polka is great fun. Dance fans may know the work (minus the Air) as choreographed by Mark Morris — one of his most celebrated ballets.
John Adam's Road Movies which ends the program, is like the Higdon and Harrison works in being both serious and light-hearted, alternately agitated and calm. The opening movement, "Relaxed Groove," is in fact quite fast, "relaxed" perhaps in the sense that it seems to be on cruise control. (Koh hears the steady click of a train, according to the program notes.) It's another perpetual motion machine, though Adams himself applies this term to the finale, titled "40% Swing" in satirical reference to a MIDI sequencer's ability to add a calculated amount of a musical style to a piece. Adams also calls the finale "a giddy, bouncy ride," mixing Ivesian ragtime with Benny Goodman swing, though I hear more of the bounce of Harrison's Polka but on overdrive, with a chug to a halt at the end. Whatever Adams' idea of a road movie is, it's certainly not Easy Rider or Two-Lane Blacktop — maybe more of a Keystone Cops chase? In any case, the middle movement, "Meditative," is in strong contrast: a kind of thoughtful dialogue between the violin and piano within what Adams considers a "desert landscape."Koh and Uchida play with tremendous authority, beauty and variety. Nearly all of the music on this CD calls for a steady flow of energy, whether a movement is breathtakingly fast or seemingly suspended in meditation. (Only the Ruggles could be called expressionistically intense.) Cedille's excellent sound and the generous length of the CD make this all the more a valuable release.