Giorgio Koukl | 29 AUG 2023
Innova Records presents us with a new and impressive collection of chamber music by Gerald Cohen, played by the Cassatt String Quartet and guests.
This is a new and appealing possibility to follow the interesting and eclectic compositional style of Mr. Cohen—a style which is difficult to define, rich in various citations, changing constantly and seemingly uniting the not-so-easy-to-unite. The composer has no difficulty juxtaposing a somber, futuristic sound that could perfectly fit a Stanley Kubrick film and go directly to a Beethoven citation.
The first piece, which is also the longest, is called Voyagers, giving the name to the whole disc. It has four parts: “Cavatina,” “Bhairavi,” “Galliard,” and “Beyond the Heliosphere.” The score is set for clarinet (playing also the bass clarinet) and a string quartet. Here, the first guest is the excellent clarinetist Narek Arutyunian.
The idea behind this music is simple: In 1977, two NASA satellites, Voyager 1 and 2, were launched into orbit to reach the limits of our solar system and go beyond. Both satellites are still active; in fact, Voyager 2 launched a feeble signal a few weeks ago. As a sort of presentation of the human race, just in case the two objects should be examined by any extraterrestrial, a “Golden disc”, a phonograph record in the form of a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, was included.
Gerald Cohen departs from this fascinating idea and uses some of the included compositions, interweaving them into his score, obtaining a nice interplay of old and new.
The clarinetist Narek Arutyunian plays both of his clarinets with equal brilliance, a not-so-common quality.
The second composition, Playing for our lives, evokes the tragic facts that happened in the Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic called Terezìn. This 18th-century military fortress was used during the Second World War as a so-called transit camp before sending the unfortunate prisoners to the more known and feared extermination camps. Here the Nazi military maintained a sort of artificial facade of normality, even allowing the inmates to compose and play some music. Many of the composers who died in those camps are now well known, like Hans Kràsa, Viktor Ullman or Pavel Haas.
Mr. Cohen’s score consists of three parts: “Beryozkele,” “Brundibar,” and “Dies Irae.”
While the “Beryozkele” (“little birch tree” in the Yiddish language) is a folk song, its use in the score rarely resembles any usual folk song arrangement; it is instead a highly refined page in its harmonies and compositional development.
The “Brundibar” is an anonymous citation of an opera for children written in 1938 but reconstructed for the few available instruments in the camp by the composer Hans Kràsa, using the original text of Adolf Hoffmeister. It was staged no less than 55 times, one of them for an official Red Cross delegation visit to show the “easy life” of the Jewish detainees.
The last part of this score is a partly complete citation of the “Dies Irae” theme from Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. Here again, the composer shows some highly skillful treatment of the theme without ever falling into the trap of the obvious.
Here again, we can admire the precise intonation, the perfect control of the dynamic range, and the overall musical capacity of the Cassatt Quartet. They are really in top form and ready to give their best.
The final work on this disc is called Preludes and Debka, the “debka” being a Middle Eastern dance, sometimes resembling similar dances from the Balkans, which are usually danced in a circle.
Here, the Cassatt Quartet is joined by trombonist Colin Williams. There is traditionally a high expectation of brass instrument players coming from the USA, at least from the European point of view. It might be the tradition of all the brass ensembles, it might be the superior schools, but generally, a brass player coming from America is superior to what Europe has to offer. Well, Mr. Williams is more than that. His part is exceptionally delicate, mostly playing piano and having to interact with a string ensemble. He does so with grace, perfect intonation, and superior sound quality.
This album is of very high quality in all its parts, from the compositional work to the interpretative skills, the sound quality being of the highest standard, too—an easy recommendation. ■
- Cassatt String Quartet: cassattquartet.com
- Gerald Cohen: geraldcohenmusic.com
- Narek Arutyunian: instagram.com/newyorknarek
- Colin Williams: colinwilliamstrombone.com