Voyaging With the Cassatt's and Gerald Cohen
Voyagers Narek Arutyunian, clarinet/bass clarinet; Colin Williams, trombone. Cassatt String Quartet Innova 090 Total Time: 64:49 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Gerald Cohen is a noted baritone and cantor. In this new Innova release, his sense of lyricism and dramatic shaping comes to the forefront in three chamber pieces. The Cassatt String Quartet has performed some of Cohen’s music in the past and are featured here.
The title work, Voyagers, is in four movements. Cohen’s inspiration was the Voyager spacecraft and the movements are a blend of different styles that are placed within a more traditional quartet formal structure. It is a unique clarinet/bass clarinet quintet. The latter adds a rather unique dark color to the texture in the opening “Cavatina”. After than almost Herrmann-esque opening, there is a more modernist style that then gives way to an exploration of music from a Beethoven quartet (Op. 130). This lends the music a more tonal focus which is enhanced by jazzy rhythms. The slow movement, “Bhairavi”, provides a moment of contemplation incorporating an Indian raga. For the scherzo movement, Cohen uses a popular Renaissance dance form, the Galliard, from a piece by Anthony Holborne (“The Fairie Round”). “Beyond the Heliosphere” closes things off by also referencing the opening movement and returning us eventually to the bass clarinet which now shifts to its higher register as the piece comes to an end. This is a quite engaging work with interesting dramatic flair and lyricism. The “quotation” variations throughout also provide another window of accessibility to the piece. These different elements create an almost suite-like atmosphere reflecting on the variety of global music and history. The rhythmic ideas throughout keep interest and the modern romantic style of the music is enhanced by the dramatic shape Cohen creates as well.
At the center is a three-movement string quartet, Playing for our lives. Composed for the performers here and premiered by them in 2012, the piece was constructed with an overarching programmatic theme as well. Here the reference is to life in the concentration camp Terezin. The work’s first performance shared a program with other pieces by composers who were interned there as a sort of memorial. Again, Cohen blends a variety of different musics into the fabric of his music. “Beryozkele” is a Yiddish song whose melody is one of the components of this opening movement. The central movement is based on a lullaby from the opera Brundibar by Hans Krasa. “Dies Irae” shifts us to references to Verdi’s Requiem. There are a host of implications here that connect with the historicity of Terezin’s musical community but then also lift listeners to contemplate the loss and horror of the concentration camps. An overall intense and reflective work that does not lose power on its own here.
Finally, the album concludes with Preludes and Debka (2001). It bears the rather unusual blend of trombone with string quartet. The piece is in four interconnected movements. On one level is the temporal structure of a traditional four-movement work, but really it is more like a theme and variations that takes its inspiration from a debka, a sort of Middle Eastern circle dance. Most striking here is the more lyrical exploration of the trombone line in particular which balances well with the quartet. It has an almost improvisational quality and this is enhanced by the way specific motives are occasionally tossed between the quartet and soloist. The piece grows toward the final dance finale.
Cohen’s music is captivating and quite moving. The music moves beautifully with the borrowed tunes aiding in an expanded lyrical style. Harmonically, there are some hints toward modernist styles, but the music also may come back into more traditional sounds. The latter tend to be like flashes of memory. The Cassatt Quartet is a perfect match to this music with moving performances and attention to detail that brings out some of the jauntier syncopations rhythmically. Both Arutyunian and Williams are well attuned to the nuances of Cohen’s music as well and that serves to make both works engaging bookends on this excellent new release.