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ClassicsOnline Home » WUORINEN: String Sextet / String Quartet No. 2 / Piano Quintet / Divertimento
For all Charles Wuorinen’s longstanding reputation as a modernist, his musical career has more in common with those of Brahms and Beethoven than with any contemporary model. His music, from his earliest pieces through the more recent masterworks, is a body of work as significant as one is likely to encounter. Wuorinen has long had a well-earned reputation for mastery of unconventional instrumental groupings, but the four chamber works on this disc are all scored for conventional forces – two string quartets, a string sextet and a piano quintet.
By Carson Cooman
Living Music Journal
By Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News
Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938)
String Sextet • Second String Quartet • Piano Quintet • Divertimento
Charles Wuorinen has been composing since he was five and has been a forceful presence on the American musical scene for more than four decades. In 1970 he became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, the specific work being Time's Encomium, an electronic composition written on commission from Nonesuch Records. The Pulitzer and the MacArthur Fellowship are just two among many awards, fellowships and other honours to have come his way. He has written more than two hundred compositions to date. An indication of his historical importance can be seen in the fact that in 1975 Stravinsky's widow gave Wuorinen the composer's last sketches for use in A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky.
An eloquent writer and speaker, Wuorinen has lectured at universities throughout the United States and abroad, and has served on the faculties of leading American universities. He has also been active as a performer, an excellent pianist and a distinguished conductor of his own works as well as other twentieth-century repertoire, appearing with many of America's major orchestras. In 1962 he co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music, one of America's most prestigious ensembles dedicated to performance of new chamber music. In addition to cultivating a new generation of performers, commissioning and giving premières of hundreds of new works, the Group has been a model for many similar organizations which have appeared in the United States since its founding. Wuorinen is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Fifteen years separate the Second String Quartet (1979) and the Piano Quintet (1994), a period during which Wuorinen completed some sixty other works. In addition to the present Divertimento and the Sextet, these included, to name just a few of the larger works, the Third Piano Concerto, the oratorio The Celestial Sphere, the orchestral work Movers and Shakers for the Cleveland Orchestra, the Third String Quartet, the Saxophone Quartet Concerto, and the cello concerto Five. The four chamber works on this disc represent a significant part of Wuorinen's work for entirely conventional ensemble-types, string quartet, piano quintet, and string sextet.
Wuorinen has long had a well-earned reputation for mastery of unconventional instrumental groupings, stemming from his involvement with the seminal Group for Contemporary Music, which he founded in 1962 with Harvey Sollberger. He first made his name as a professional, putting aside numerous youthful honours and awards, with the pieces he wrote for the Group, notably a series of chamber concertos featuring solo tuba or cello or flute or oboe with decidedly mixed, unique groupings of some ten or so players. It was not until 1971 that Wuorinen wrote his first string quartet; and, generally speaking, among Wuorinen's very large catalogue one finds such "standard" genres only infrequently.
We can trace Wuorinen's penchant for unique combinations to their prevalence in his era and predecessors as well as to specific influences, Stravinsky and Stefan Wolpe among them, but we would not be going too far afield to link the present works to the Schumann or Brahms tradition, filtered through Stravinsky and Schoenberg (who was, of course, himself in that great lineage). Certainly in addition to the choice of instrumentation here, Wuorinen's delight in contrapuntal interplay and organic thematic development is something he shares with his great nineteenth-century predecessors.
The String Sextet was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and is dedicated to Fred Sherry. Begun on 3 August 1988, and finished on 20 April 1989, the piece was first performed on a Chamber Music Society tour in the first week of November 1989; the players were Ida Kavafian, Ani Kafavian, Walter Trampler, Paul Neubauer, Fred Sherry, and Leslie Parnas.
The standard string sextet, two violins, two violas, two cellos, fills out its range in a balanced way, unlike the asymmetrical string quartet. In his String Sextet Wuorinen exploits this characteristic immediately with a nine-pitch (eight-pitch-class), non-vibrato chord spanning nearly four octaves, emerging from a soundless attack. (This chord returns explicitly about two minutes from the end of the piece.) He also blends the instruments and overlaps their ranges, making it difficult to differentiate, within the dense and resonant contrapuntal texture, a cello high in its range (for example) from a viola, or even a violin. Occasional verbatim, unison imitation among the instruments encourages the illusion. The piece's tendency over the course of its nineteen minutes is from the amorphous, ambiguous opening toward well-defined phrases. From the sustained opening textures, clear rhythmic and melodic gestures slowly emerge, sparked by the first violin's two-measure unaccompanied solo. The pairs of like instruments begin to come together in unison passages, including several instances of four-instrument (two-pair) unison. Ultimately, following a couple of clear-cut changes in tempo, the ensemble coalesces in quick repeated chords. A short coda, beginning with the chord that opened the piece, features a solo turn for cello.
Of his Second String Quartet, Wuorinen writes, "The work is in four connected movements but each of these has its own slow and fast music, and its own area of activity and repose; the whole work, therefore, is really a single large movement. […] [I]n this work, I have been more interested in unity and cooperation than in multiplicity and independence…. The members of the ensemble speak with a single tongue." Wuorinen wrote this quartet in the first half of 1979, eight years after completing his First Quartet. He composed it for the Columbia String Quartet, who gave the première at the Grand Teton Festival in Jackson, Wyoming, in August 1979. This piece, like the Sextet, is about nineteen minutes long.
The quartet begins with a strange, quiet ticking, the four instruments playing pulses of four different speeds; all but the cello play alternate notes as left-hand pizzicato; this establishes a tendency toward periodicity and repetition. On a motivic level this material, in different forms, permeates the piece: as tremolo, as rapidly repeated pitches, and as quick, repeated alternation between two pitches, usually in an aggressive context, while slow passages provide a feeling of arrival or suspension. The first movement is balanced between aggressive, strongly pulsed music and sustained, almost static chords (on a surface level, slow-fast-slow-fast-slow). The second movement is the most active, proceeding through rapid, abrupt increases in tempo until, at its climax, arriving at almost complete stillness. In the third movement, the music of the quartet's opening measures is treated to extended development. The final movement is the longest, beginning lyrically, gradually becoming more active and coalescing—quite remarkably—into prevailing unison and homophony.
The Divertimento for string quartet, dating from 1982, was commissioned by the de Blasiis Chamber Music Series, Glens Falls New York. In November 2000 it was taken on tour by TASHI, who made the present world première recording at that time. The designation "divertimento" was one Haydn used for several groups of string quartets, and which Mozart used for his first pieces in that medium. Wuorinen uses it for this eleven-and-a-half-minute, single-movement string quartet, the title being a clear implication of lightness, of entertainment. (Wuorinen's piece by the same title for alto sax and piano is actually the same piece, but although the notes are the same the result sounds fascinatingly different.) The opening makes much of small differences in rhythm, pitch, and articulation (the ponticello of the violins), with the pitch range expanding little by little. It is perhaps in keeping with the Mozart-Haydn model that the first violin is largely to the fore throughout, with imitation and frequent unisons as part of the "accompaniment". That accompaniment is, of course, often also capable of polyphonic independence. The piece is in three large sections delineated by brief pauses and abrupt increases in tempo; the first change occurs at about 4:30, the second at about 8:30. The tempo relationships, as it turns out, are built into the opening measure of the piece, in which the first violin plays eighths (quavers), the second violin, triplet eighths (quavers), and the viola, sixteenths (semiquavers), all tremolo.
Wuorinen began his Piano Quintet in July 1993 and completed it in May of the following year, writing it for Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet on commission from Lincoln Center. Oppens and the Arditti gave the première on 19 February 1995, in Chicago, and repeated it at Lincoln Center in New York City on 23 February. The piece is in four movements of varied character and is about 23 minutes long.
At the start the quintet is grouped as two violins (with sustained music) versus viola, cello, and piano. The gradual trend is from driving, clear-cut pulse very gradually to calmer music, tempered by bursts from the piano, with new small combinations continually forming among the instruments. The piano's opening flourish is a recurrent motif, establishing both the energy and the pitch range of the movement. Its fast quintuplet rhythms are a clear-cut marker in its frequent return. (Also common in the movement are triplet, sextuplet, and septuplet divisions.) The second movement proceeds extremely slowly, almost as though suspended in time. The listener may readily relate the slow, five-note scales in the piano to their much faster occurrence in the first movement's central motif. Here the subtle motion is toward greater activity, from stasis eventually to unhurried flow. The third movement, nodding to Brahms, is an Intermezzo that grows directly out of the slow movement, but it also serves as a catalyst for the mercurial finale. A prominent returning feature of this last movement is a quick descending scale, a mirror to the ascending scale heard in the first part of the piece. A quiet echo of the slow movement can be heard in the transparent chords at the close.
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