Friday, 3 June 2016

Wonderful works for string quartet by Joan Tower that are full of vibrancy as well as intense feeling on a new release from Naxos

Joan Tower (b.1938) is widely regarded as one of the most important American composers living today.  Her bold and energetic compositions have been performed in concert halls around the world. Born in New Rochelle, N.Y. she studied piano as a child, attending Bennington College and completing her music studies at Columbia University.

In 1969 she formed the Da Capo Chamber Players for which she played piano and wrote many pieces before leaving the ensemble in 1984. She is chiefly known for her colourful and often whimsical orchestral compositions, including Sequoia (1981), Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (1987) and Silver Ladder (1987). She was the first composer chosen for a Ford Made in America consortium commission shared by no less than sixty-five orchestras.

She has been Composer in Residence with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Albany Symphony Orchestra. She is Asher Edelman Professor of Music at Bard College.

Naxos have made a number of recordings of her works, Made in America, Tambor and Concerto for Orchestra with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Leonard Slatkin (8.559328), Violin Concerto, Stroke and Chamber Dance with Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with violinist Cho-Liang Lin (8.559775) and Chamber and Solo Music featuring amongst others the Tokyo Quartet (8.559215).

Now from Naxos comes a new release of Joan Tower’s String Quartets and Dumbarton Quintet played by the Daedalus Quartet , the Miami String Quartet and pianist Blair McMillen in world premiere recordings.


White Water (String Quartet No.5) (2012) was commissioned by Chamber Music Monterey Bay and premiered by the performers on this new disc, the Daedalus Quartet. The work was inspired by artist, Bill Viola’s video installation Going Forth by Day and how he used water as an encompassing image.

It opens with a sad theme from the viola to which the cello joins, soon developed by them creating upward glissandi that eventually take us to the heights before the whole quartet introduces a rhythmic motif and the music adopts a more dramatic stance. The gentler nature makes a return before the music slowly rises in dynamics and tempo through more incisive passages before finding a quiet sad passage, the viola weaving some fine moments. There are little drooping phrases and another rising motif. Indeed, it is the dynamic between the gentler and the more dramatic, incisive passages that creates an ever flowing, ever changing tapestry. There are some really exhilarating passages as the music progresses, rising for violin to high regions as the most delicate phrases circle before tumbling through the whole quartet. The Daedalus Quartet finds some remarkably fine textures and timbres with later the gentle sad atmosphere returning. The music is quietly taken forward through lovely harmonies with some exquisite little glissando phrases before driving forward through a swirling, dramatic passage only to find a quieter coda on a little sliding upward phrase.

This is a wonderful work given a vibrant, exhilarating performance.

Incandescent (String Quartet No.3) (2003) was a co-commission from the South Mountain Association and the Bard campus and was premiered by the Emerson Quartet. The composer states that she tries in her music to ‘…create a heat from within so that what unfolds is not only motivated by the architecture…but also that each idea or phrase contains a strong radiance of texture …’

The opening of the quartet is announced by a sudden phrase that is repeated before the music develops through some passages of rich, glowing textures, each player providing some lovely individual lines as they weave a fine gentle tapestry. The music rises in dynamics with some incisive urgency where Tower develops some terrific string textures. The music soon finds a more emotional edge as it slowly moves forward with sudden incisive phrases breaking out before quietening and slowing with some beautiful moments for violin. Vibrancy is found in a pizzicato passage that is still heard through a faster flowing section. Slowly the drama increases with rich firmer chords as the music weaves ahead through some fast and brilliant passages, exhibiting a terrific section for viola. Eventually the music finds a slow and thoughtful moment, full of gentle calm, before taking off again through incisive fast moving phrases to a coda that brings dramatic chords.

The Miami String Quartet brings some very fine playing to this fine quartet.

Angels (String Quartet No.4) (2008) was commissioned by the New Mexico festival Music from Angel Fire. The title acts as a thank you to those who helped when the composer’s younger brother was recovering from illness.

A rapidly rising and falling theme opens and is soon developed through some of Tower’s distinctive glissandi phrases. Soon the music finds a slower, more thoughtful passage around which the glissandi phrases weave. Tower creates some lovely little details before picking up momentum as the strings weave quickly ahead in a buoyant rhythm. There are incisive, staccato phrases and a passage of intense, slower, rich phrases that pour out much feeling. The tempo rises again, full of wonderful textures and details woven together, through moments of slower introspection. The Miami String Quartet find some quite lovely harmonies and textures before bounding ahead through fast, incisive passages. There is some fine use of harmonics that create a terrific atmosphere and a slower section with some very fine harmonies before the music picks up a frenetic pace to lead to a terrific coda.

This is a particularly fine quartet full of intense emotion and vibrancy and is wonderfully played by the Miami String Quartet.

Joan Tower was the third composer commissioned by the Dumbarton Oaks Foundation, joining Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. The result was her Dumbarton Quintet (2003). The work was premiered by the Ensō Quartet with the piano part taken by the composer. On this recording pianist, Blair McMillen joins the Daedalus Quartet.

To open the piano lays down a chord over which the strings bring a slow sombre theme, very soon the theme picks up momentum to drive forward. The piano brings a detailed little motif to which the strings respond, these players’ fine care of dynamics allows the music to develop with great subtlety soon finding a brilliance as the music moves ahead. There is a further quiet passage with rippling piano chords before the music finds an intense emotional pull with a fine moment for violin.  Harmonics announce the return of the faster tempo which soon arrives in earnest, creating a terrific sense of forward movement, even in some of the slower passages. There is a short moment of quieter intensely that precedes a dramatic lead up to the coda. 

Joan Tower writes wonderfully for the string quartet medium bringing forth music that is full of fine textures and colours and indeed vibrancy as well as intense feeling. All the performances here are excellent as is the recording. There are informative booklet notes. 

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