Roads Less Traveled: New Music By Anthony Cheung
All Roads Gilles Vonsattel, piano. Escher Quartet; Miranda Cuckson, violin. Anthony Cheung, piano; Paulina Swierczek, soprano. Jacob Greenberg, piano. New Focus Recordings FCR 263 Total Time: 69:57 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Composer Anthony Cheung currently teaches at Brown University and has received a variety of awards. One of these was for first prize in the Sixth International Dutilleux Competition (2008). That is somewhat telling as his style of exploring instrumental color and multiple textural writing is a distant cousin of that composer’s style. It is on display throughout this collection of four chamber works composed between 2015-2018.
The newest of these pieces, All Roads (2018), opens the album and is a work for string quartet and piano. It was commissioned for the group that performs it here. The piece is constructed as a set of an introduction, three interludes and four movements. The introduction presents an extrapolated and stretched segment from Billy Strayhorn’s Lotus Blossom which is used to provide a structural underpinning to the piece. There are echoes of the thematic motive that appear through in a sort of modified variation technique while the harmony also is referenced. The music has a semi-improvisational feel as well. Within the constrains of the pitch material, Cheung also uses the primary movements to explore texture, form (a passacaglia), suspension and sound, and angular writing that pushes away and circles back upon itself. The music has a somewhat harsher edge, but is tapered by brief tonal flashes here and there. The intervallic relationships often come together in denser patterns while an occasional solo line may can achieve some beautiful lyricism. The third interlude reminds us a bit of the primary harmonic component and each interlude is used in a similar fashion to provide an aural clue as to what is to come.
At the center of the album are two works for solo violin. First up is the sonata, Effective Memory (2015) which also takes its inspiration musically from Beethoven’s tenth violin sonata (Op. 96, 1812). Cheung further attends to that composer’s interactions with Goethe and the latter’s philosophical views on human relationships and chemical reactions. This becomes the aesthetic underpinning as the Beethoven piece is referenced as a sort of recollection of the sonata as it first struggles to come into the foreground, then merges and blurs itself with an earlier piece of Cheung’s before disassembling and fragmenting further in the final movement. The other work, Character Studies (2016) for violin solo, moves the idea of dialogue and interaction from the sonata to a more introspective internal dialogue with shifting personalities (in “Dramatis Personae”—the first movement), and the presentation of a more lyrical reflection interrupted by arpeggios (the second movement). The latter provides a distillation of Cheung’s compositional approach laid bare into a single line.
The final work on the album provides an example of Cheung’s writing for voice and with specified texts inspiring his compositional approach. The deconstruction of other musical quotations heard in the previous works on the album is transformed into the choice of texts and their manipulation. The latter done through Google Translate and the sending of texts through the translation feature multiple times and then back into English. The texts here are selected from Nabokov, The New Republic, Poe, and Pushkin. The patchwork quilt of texts becomes threaded together by Cheung’s musical language as specific motives help tie things together with lyrical segments providing reflective respites along the way. Not just the texts, but the musical materials as well are “translated” in a way as the piece transforms the musical content across the four movements. The vocal line includes recitation and a lyrical humming and then the spoken segments begin to shift into sung ones with some slight sprechstimme along the way. It adds to the drama with the sung moments increasing the intensity of the text. In a way, it demonstrates how the sung word enhances text setting.
Cheung’s music is quite dramatic and engaging with the dissonances tending to be tempered by a sense of theatrical exploration of texture and sound. Each work is an example of his tightly-crafted technique and provides an avenue into more complex contemporary music that stretches the bounds in mostly atonal lines held together by specific musical sets of sound. The piano quintet makes for a fine opener into this sound world which is explored with variations in the following pieces.
New Focus continues to impress with its sound imaging of chamber music that provides great detail within a proper imaging of the instruments. The violin sonata is a great example of how the piano feels “behind” the soloist which tends to move from left to center in the sound picture. In the piano and string quartet work the same sense of staging can also be discerned in the resulting recording. It makes this an interesting release of contemporary music worth seeking out for those exploring new voices.