Giorgio Koukl | 17 JAN 2022
At nearly 94 years old, Samuel Adler is undoubtedly one of the patriarchs of contemporary music. Extremely prolific, he contributed more than 400 works to practically every musical genre. All this while teaching relentlessly at the most prestigious U.S. institutes of music education.
Some of the works on this album are world premiere recordings. The String Quartet No. 10 played by the Cassatt Quartet is a high-quality work of lasting value. Here the listener can enjoy the vast array of different sources of inspiration the composer can combine. The rest of the CD is filled with occasional works, usually miniatures, with varying degrees of quality.
The CD opens with Fantasy for piano solo (2014), a work that maintains what it promises with its title. “Fantasy” is far too often used to describe a musical composition which, lacking a structure or a development, hides this weakness behind this title. Not so this Fantasy. The music is surprising, fresh, and played well by pianist Michael Brown, who studied composition with Dr. Adler at The Juilliard School. At only five minutes in length, it is nevertheless a good opener. This is the world premiere recording.
The Violin Sonata No. 2 (1956) follows. Its three movements (“Allegro moderato,” “Lento espressivo” and “Allegro molto ma non troppo”) exhibit a certain fascinating quality of melancholy, coupled with a melodic simplicity. Here, violinist Michelle Ross, who also studied composition with Adler, produces precisely the right sound of sadness and profound grief that this music requires. The piano part is of extreme simplicity, partly tonal, never going away from a particular classical pattern. The last movement is a kind of peasant dance, maybe too short, being more a miniature than a full sonata movement.
In Memory of Milton for violin solo (2012) bears the dedication to composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). It is a pleasant five-minute miniature, a piece that flows naturally without asking the interpreter any superior degree of technical difficulty. Here too, Michelle Ross delivers solid craftsmanship and a rather appealing sound quality. This music, too, is a world premiere recording.
Violin Sonata No. 3 (1965), with its contiguous movements (“Fast and intense – Very slowly – Suddenly fast – Very lively -Very slowly – Like a waltz, gracefully -Fast and intense”), is using a wholly different musical language: experimental, now completely atonal and very demanding in terms of technical difficulties from both violinist and pianist. In its complexity, it recalls some of the last compositions for violin and piano by Alexander Tansman, but unfortunately without the scintillating originality of the latter. It was composed in Dallas in 1965 and premiered by violinist Carroll Glenn and pianist Brooks Smith in New York City in 1968.
Then another miniature for solo piano: Festschrift: A Celebration for Solo Piano (2007). While it is played with great exuberance by Michael Brown, who is giving his maximum to make this music sound interesting, it is nonetheless one of the weaker pieces of Adler, which at a certain point touches the point of boredom. It is followed by another piano miniature called Thy Song Expands My Spirit from 1980. Unfortunately not much different from the precedent, it explores the realms of enlarged tonality together with obsessive repetition of rhythmical patterns but never reaches any sort of development or logical construction. Both pieces are marked as world premiere recordings.
Another Violin Sonata follows, marked as No. 4, written in 1989. It is divided into three sections: “Quite fast,” “Quiet and dream-like,” “Fast and very rhythmic.” This Sonata was premiered by violinist William Steck and pianist Cary Lewis in Washington, DC. Although the liner notes underline that it was written keeping in mind the virtuosic capacities of both interpreters, in reality, there are few stylistic changes compared to the Violin Sonata No. 3, despite some quarter-century time difference. Certainly, the last movement is infernally difficult for the pianist, but without obtaining the desirable effect of becoming more interesting.
The final track is dedicated to the String Quartet No. 10, written in 2014. Splendidly interpreted by the Cassatt Quartet, it is definitely a highlight of this more or less casual choice among the composer’s works. Its sagacious color combinations, highly appealing mixture of different bow techniques, and rhythmic richness — all this is a splendid example of what Adler can achieve.
It is clear that the course of musical development of this century will hardly be influenced by this artist, his oeuvre lacking a consistent and durable quality. Still, it can be taken for granted that single works of this highly original composer will remain vital in the future. ■
- Michelle Ross: michellerossviolin.com
- Michael Brown: michaelbrownmusic.com
- Cassatt Quartet: cassattquartet.com
- Samuel Adler: samuelhadler.com