Rhapsodic Reactions from Margaret Brouwer
Margaret Brouwer: Reactions; Songs & Chamber Music Sarah Beaty, mezzo-soprano. Brian Skoog, tenor. Mari Sato, violin, narrator. Elisha Nelson, viola. Shuai Wang, piano. Naxos 8.559904 Total Time: 56:00 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
It has been a few years since the last release of chamber music from American composer Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940). She was most recently was head of composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where most of these performances were recorded. This is the third release from Naxos featuring her work. Brouwer’s music is quite accessible in a neo-romantic modernist style. It is especially noted for its dramatic power and lyricism. In this new release, listeners can further explore some recent chamber music works. The title of this release is connected to the more personal musical expressions of specific events.
The album opens with an impressive sonata for viola and piano. Cast in three movements, the Rhapsodic Sonata (2011, rev. 2016) depicts a personal journey in often large lyrical gestures that move across the different moods expressed in this music beginning with a sense of questioning and somewhat angrier outbursts. Pentatonic scalar references in the music create a shimmering musical quality and also work well to provide a blurred shift in harmony that is interspersed with quite gorgeous lyrical writing for viola. Brouwer’s sonata is a reflection on the moods of love and the way one responds to the intense emotions. While one might think of this in a purely romantic way, the central movement has seemingly greater aspirations that cause us to reflect upwards as well as inwards in a more spiritual way. A Gregorian chant quote helps create that deeper meaning as the movement comes to a close. The final movement shifts to a more playful quality. This is an important addition to the viola repertoire and a quite engaging opener for this release.
There are two vocal collections on this release. First is a song cycle for mezzo-soprano. Declaration (2005) is a meditation on war, violence and equality using texts by poets Ann Woodward and David Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the composer herself. The accompaniment includes violin with piano. The violin aids more poignancy to the vocal line’s emotional pleas, often extending the thought as it dissipates or morphs into a new direction. This is a more intense work providing good contrast to the earlier sonata. Brouwer also wrote the text for the tenor song, The Lake (2019). It depicts a man walking along a beach and reflecting on what he sees both in the beauty and in the despoiling of the landscape. We move from that morning appreciation of nature to anger and eventually sadness of the destruction of natural beauty.
The album also includes two works for violin. First is I Cry-Summer 2020 (2020) which is a personal response to all that the US was dealing with in the midst of a pandemic, political turmoil, and other violence. It serves as a moment of cathartic reflection and release as the listener is shaped by Brouwer’s emotional music. To close out the album, we get a somewhat satirical little work for solo violin. All Lines Are Busy (2019) creates a one-way conversation and what it is like to be put on hold where a common musical earworm plays incessantly as one waits. The piece incorporates narrated text spoken by the soloist.
Reactions is another great way to be introduced to Brouwer’s chamber music with excellent, and dedicated, strong performances throughout this release. The recording itself is also crystal clear with fine balance of soloist and the accompanying instruments. There is just enough ambience to warm the sound. Sarah Beaty’s warm timbre adds greater depth to her performance. The dramatic qualities Brian Skoog elicits also help emphasize this aspect of Brouwer’s writing. Pianist Shua Wang’s work navigating these changing moods is also quite engaging throughout. Eliesha Nelson brings off a superb rendition of the opening viola sonata and Mari Sato also captures the emotional threads of Brouwer’s music with opportunities to show off her own shaping and technical virtuosity. This is a highly recommendable collection of contemporary music in an engaging program.