Curtis Bryant | 09 MAY 2019
The new album, Alchemy, on the Marquis Classics label is a collaboration between the acclaimed Jupiter String Quartet and Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey. It features piano quintets and piano quartets by composers Pierre Jalbert, Steven Stucky, and Carl Vine, all of which were originally commissioned by Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. The performers originally met in 2017 at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival where they gave the premiere performance of Jalbert’s Piano Quintet. They reunited to produce this album, which includes three recording premieres. The album’s title is taken from the final work on the recording, Jalbert’s Secret Alchemy (2012) for violin, viola, cello and piano, the only recording that is not a premiere. Although the three composers represented on the album have quite different backgrounds, their works form a compatible mix, balancing new music styles with their use of expanded tonal language. Performed with great sensitivity and attention to detail, this album marks an important addition to the recorded repertory of new chamber music.
Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967): Piano Quintet
Jalbert’s four-movement Piano Quintet leads off the album. The New Hampshire native, born of French Canadian parents, studied under George Crumb and has won numerous awards, including the Rome Prize (2000-2001). His smart use of instrumental technique, without a slavish devotion to effects at the expense of musicality, gives his music a refined and simultaneously practical sense of color and polish. The three-minute first movement of the quintet, aptly subtitled “Mannheim Rocket,” takes off with propulsive energy, strings playing rapidly repeated figures and piano bubbling with ascending and descending arpeggios. The haunting second movement, “Kyrie,” is a slow nocturne that evokes ancient antiphonal call and response lines. The choppy third movement, “Scherzo,” is strewn with imitative fits and starts, living up to its playful character. This is followed by the finale, titled “Pulse,” a sort of perpetual motion of driving eighth notes that literally pulsate in alternating crescendos and decrescendos. Remote reminders of prior movements can be heard as the movement finally grinds down and then ends with a flourish.
Steven Stucky (1949-2016): Piano Quartet
Stucky, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, suffered an untimely death from an aggressive form of brain cancer at the age of 66. His Piano Quartet, composed around the same time as the concerto, is in a single movement that spans seventeen and a half minutes. It begins with pounding, bell-like “alpha chords” in the piano answered by fragmented unison melodic responses in the strings. This dialog between strings and piano serves as an introduction that leads to a slow, more reflective section (Lento, molto cantabile), which in turn transitions to an energetic (Allegro) segment featuring rapid staccato notes with longer sustained chords, with the piano and strings frequently reversing roles. A new and contrasting middle section emerges with a distinctly jazz-like flavor, almost reminiscent of Bernstein. The mood does not last long, though, as the allegro energy returns. But, the tempo again slows down to a sort of development of materials from the earlier lento, now featuring trills and tremolos that give animation to the sustained chords. The dynamic level sharply rises again as the movement closes dramatically with a recapitulation of the opening ideas.
Stucky’s persistent use of octatonic harmonies – derived from the symmetric eight-note scale of alternating whole and half steps – is reminiscent of Bartók, but one also catches hints of jazz as well as other American voices in his musical language. The expansive movement jumps across many moods and tempos as it progresses, but it remains coherent, partly because of the persistent, perhaps overused harmonic language rather than any easily identifiable thematic or motivic asset. Stucky’s Piano Quartet is a major contribution to this genre by an American composer who’s mature and refined compositional technique distinguished his work.
Carl Vine (b.1954): Fantasia for piano quintet
Australian composer Carl Vine’s output ranges from film, television and theatrical music to symphonic, dance and chamber music. His episodic Fantasia received its premiere by fellow Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey and the Shanghai Quartet in 2013. The single-movement work opens with soft bell-like chords in the piano, punctuated by pizzicato strings. Gradually the pace quickens, and melodic fragments emerge as the strings, one by one, take to their bows. As the dynamic level increases, the strings introduce an animated melody in unison, which takes on a romantic character as they expand to full harmonic expression over piano arpeggios. There follow several scattered ideas that form a generally slow middle section. Vine characterizes the motifs in the piece as tending “to flow one from the other organically through the course of the work.” One catches hints of a sort of modern impressionism with an urban flare in the lively final section. The driving compound meter bestows a bouncy lilt as the quintet builds to its climactic ending.
Pierre Jalbert: Secret Alchemy for violin, viola, cello, and piano
The final work on the album is Jalbert’s four-movement piano quartet Secret Alchemy. The composer states: “Though this piece is not programmatic, imagining the air of secrecy and mysticism surrounding a medieval alchemist at work provided a starting point for the piece.” Soft arpeggiated chords in the piano initiate the opening movement, marked “Mystical,” while an enigmatic melody in the cello emerges over a repeated two-note, string harmonic ostinato pattern shared by the violin and viola. These three elements develop during a more punctuated middle section, followed by a return to the mysterious character of the opening. The second movement, marked “Agitated, relentless,” dishes out a boiling cauldron of rapid figures in the piano with syncopated pizzicato chords in the strings providing contrast. “Timeless, mysterious, reverberant:” Jalbert uses these three adjectives to aptly describe the slow, nocturnal third movement. In the final movement, marked “With great energy,” one hears hints of Americanisms from jazz-like syncopations to motor-like repeated chords as the work winds to a boisterous close.
If there is any flaw to be found in these pieces collectively it may be an overall lack of warmth. There are certainly moments of lyricism to be found, especially in the slower segments of these works, but it is the nuanced dynamic range of bowed, plucked, and hammered string timbres that distinguishes this recording. There is both sparkle and polish in this consummate collaboration between the Jupiter String Quartet and pianist Bernadette Harvey. The album was artfully recorded at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts’ Foellinger Great Hall at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where the Jupiter Quartet holds residency, and mastered by Matthew Snyder at Allegro Recordings in Burbank, California. Any aficionado of modern chamber music will be rewarded many times over with the masterful performances of these significant 21st century works for piano and strings. ■
Atlanta native Curtis Bryant is a composer of music for concert, drama and television. His second full-length opera, The Secret Agent, was premiered in 2013 by the Capitol City Opera Company.