Notable Women (CD review)

Music by Auerbach, Garrop, Higdon, Schwendinger, Thomas, and Tower. Lincoln Trio.  Cedille Records CDR 900000 126.

When I first read the title of this album, I'm afraid my regrettable male-chauvinist bias surfaced, and I looked forward to listening to it with about as much enthusiasm as watching a movie on the Lifetime Channel. However, after glancing at the contents, I noticed one of the composers was Jennifer Higdon, an artist I admired, so it gave me encouragement to proceed.

The album contains works by six female composers, all of the pieces brief, the longest one lasting about nineteen minutes, and played by the Lincoln Trio (Desiree Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Marta Aznavoorian, piano).

Things begin with the world-premiere recording of the Trio for violin, cello and piano (1992/1996) by Lera Auerbach. The brief Prelude is rather mysterious and a little disturbing in its eerie strains.  The Andante that follows is sweetly melancholic and oddly comforting, the opposite of the first movement. The concluding Presto changes the mood entirely in its heavily accented, pulsating rhythms. Here, the middle section recalls the opening movement, returning us briefly to the same enigmatic mood that started the work. It gradually intensifies again and ends triumphantly. Although the work is short at under a dozen minutes, it makes a good curtain raiser, especially as the Lincoln Trio play it, with appropriate enthusiasm.

The next selection, also a world-premiere recording, is Seven (1997-98), a collection of seven interconnected segments by Stacy Garrop. The composer says the Borg of the TV series Star Trek Voyager partially inspired her, so you can sort of guess at the tone of the music. I would have thought there was at least a touch of David Fincher's mystery thriller Se7en in there, too, given the music's mood and the kid of unusual aural effects Ms. Garrop's strives to achieve. The Lincoln Trio appear to be having fun with its often bizarre contents, and folks who enjoy modern music are sure to enjoy it.

From the only name with which I was familiar, Jennifer Higdon, comes the two-movement Piano Trio (2003). Compared to the first couple of compositions on the disc, Ms. Higdon's music seems positively old-fashioned and Romantic, which, by the way, I count as a good thing. In "Pale Yellow" and "Fiery Red" she attempts to characterize colors in music, with the results we might expect: one segment buttery smooth, the other brilliantly flashy. Again, the Lincoln Trio get a chance to display their virtuosity.

After that is another world-premiere recording, C'e la Luna Questa Sera? ("Is There a Moon Tonight?" 1998-2006), by Laura Elise Schwendinger. I confess it did not move me in any particular way, despite the rhapsodic manner in which it unfolds. Ms. Schwendinger intended the work to reflect the moonlight on Lake Como, surely a beautiful sight, but for how long might one continue enthralled by it in music? She gives it a pretty good shot, though.

Augusta Read Thomas provides the next selection, Moon Jig (2005), another piece of music inspired by the moon but this one more rhythmically intense than Ms. Schwendinger's. I'm afraid, however, that it, too, left me somewhat underwhelmed, notwithstanding its enthusiastic presentation.

The program ends with the world-premiere recording of Joan Tower's Trio Cavany (2007). She named the work after the home states of the people who commissioned it: the La Jolla Music Society in California, the Virginia Arts Festival, and the Chamber Music Society of New York. Talk about esoteric. What it does best is provide each of the three players in the Lincoln Trio a chance to shine in the spotlight, and each of them glows radiantly.

The question with most new music is how often one anticipates going back to it. Certainly, while I'm glad to have heard all the music on the disc, I can't say I'm too eager for a return listen anytime soon. It's music on which one must concentrate, and I'm not sure I'm ready for it just yet.

The sound, which Cedille engineer Bill Maylone recorded at Bennett-Gordon Hall at Ravina, Highland Park, Illinois, in 2010 and 2011, is realistic in its capturing a natural room resonance. The sonics come across refined and lifelike, with a soft, warm, ambient bloom around each instrument.


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