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Ellen Taaffe Zwilich 
Chamber Symphony; Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra ("Double Concerto");
Symphony No. 2 ("Cello")

Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson (in the Double Concerto); Albert-George Schram (in the Chamber Symphony) and Lawrence Leighton Smith conducting the Louisville Orchestra

Review By Joe Milicia
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Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Chamber Symphony; Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra ("Double Concerto"); Symphony No. 2 ("Cello")

CD Number: First Edition FECD-0004 

 

  In the 1980s and early '90s Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was perhaps a more talked-about or in-the-news composer than at present, though she has continued to write for major orchestras and soloists (notably a couple of symphonies and several wind concertos). Three works recorded by the Louisville Orchestra between 1989 and 1992 (part of their celebrated decades-long series of contemporary-music recordings) are now available on a beautifully remastered CD from First Edition. These provide a fine opportunity to revisit some important works composed between 1979 and 1991.

The Chamber Symphony (the earliest work of the three) is in fact a Sextet, for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano: the same instruments that accompany the singer in Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, except that the Viennese composer had violin/viola doubled by one player. But the term "symphony" is appropriate, considering not only the development of motifs in one 16-minute movement but also the frequent doubling of musical lines, creating a somewhat dense sonority at times. A few moments did remind me of another Schoenberg work, a Chamber Symphony of his own (his First, for a larger group of soloists), but Zwilich's piece does create its own sound world: elegiac but restless, fantasia-like in its free-form development, rich in its always-shifting combinations of a few or all six of the instruments. The work was also recorded for CRI by its commissioners, Boston Musica Viva, but the Louisville soloists play with a beauty and intensity that are first-rate.

The Double Concerto of 1991, recorded at the time of its premiere, is a short work as well (about 17"), but rich in an altogether different way. The piece is more like a concerto grosso than a display of two virtuoso soloists: the violin and cello are quite integrated into the orchestra, and even in their solo/duet passages they complement one another's sound (sometimes they even double the line a couple of octaves apart) rather than rival one another with individual flair. The first of the two movements seems at times ready to turn into a bright-and-brisk neo-baroque piece, but has its slower passages, including a whole final section in a gentler mode. The second movement begins and ends with vigor and speed, but has a middle section where time seems suspended; I wouldn't call this section brooding, for that implies a more Romantic sensibility than the work ever displays. Laredo and Robinson play with the required intensity and precision, and the Louisville Orchestra responds in kind, with various woodwind solos blending with the violin and cello in the quiet passages.

Zwilich's Symphony No. 2 of 1985 is a "Cello" Symphony not in the sense of Benjamin Britten's symphony with virtuoso solo part (originally for Mstislav Rostropovich), but because it prominently features the whole cello section. That gives the piece a special interest for its sheer sonority, though the cellos never seem flaunted as if the whole thing were a gimmick -- even with them having a cadenza in the first movement. That said, some of the most memorable sounds in the tragic-sounding slow movement (the 25-minute symphony has the traditional fast-slow-fast structure) come from the French horns, the high strings, and other brass and winds with piano background. The more agitated first movement introduces a motto theme -- four fast notes followed by a long one, like a fanfare -- that is featured perhaps a little too prominently. It appears only briefly in the slow movement, but unfortunately returns to end the symphony with dismayingly banal repetition. Actually, the whole finale, the shortest of the movements, seems uninspired compared to what has come before. (Might the composer consider revising it?) Still, this final band on the disc should not keep listeners from finding the rest of the CD rewarding.

 

 

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