Celebrating Zwilich’s Passionate Diversions

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PASSIONATE DIVERSIONS / ZWILICH: Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass & Piano.* Trio for Piano, Violin & Cello. Septet for Piano Trio & String Quartet+ / The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio; *Michael Tree, violist; *Harold Robinson, bassist; +Miami String Quartet / Azica ACD-71292

Here’s a splendid disc from 2014 that I was not permitted to review for the classical magazine I was writing for at the time, but which I’m writing about now because I am absolutely infatuated with the music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, which contains three excellent chamber works by this oft-recognized but infrequently-performed woman composer.

Zwilich’s music inhabits a zone somewhere between the neo-tonal music so popular today (but not when she first started writing in that style, back in the 1980s) and more harmonically adventurous territory. The very opening of the Quintet is a perfect example: what sounds a bit challenging harmonically at first quickly morphs into tonality, but doesn’t stay there. It constantly shifts back and forth, like a fleet-footed and clever boxer who varies his approach in the ring in order to baffle his challenger. One of her great assets is an ability to write melodic lines that are recognizable as such but do not indulge themselves in mawkish sentimentality. It is music that constantly challenges the ear but does not offend it with gratuitous “edginess” for the mere sake of trying to startle one.

And happily, it is played here by a veteran chamber group that is famous for its ability to penetrate the heart of the scores it performs, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. They are joined, in the first piece, by well-known American violist Michael Tree, a veteran of the Marlboro Festival concerts of the 1960s, and bassist Harold Robinson, who work with the trio hand-in-glove. Two of the three are 21st-century compositions by Zwilich: the quintet from 2010, the trio from 1987 and the septet from 2008. One of the more remarkable moments in the first piece is the second movement, titled “FANTASY: ‘Die launische Forelle,’” which is sort of a lazy-sounding melody using string portamento in a manner resembling the jazz-classical pieces of the Turtle Island String Quartet. The performers even give it a jazz swagger, which surprised me for such a dyed-in-the-wool classical group. The last movement is also highly syncopated with jazz allusions. Here, Zwilich writes a syncopated pizzicato bass line that simulates the kind of work a jazz bassist might do. As usual, Zwilich does not overwrite anything; her music is as concise as a Dickenson poem.

Interestingly, the first movement of the Trio almost sounds like a continuation, or counterpart, of the first movement of the Quintet, but in some ways the music here is busier, more complex and less obviously tuneful. It is, in fact, a tightly-argued and concise piece, using pauses as part of the overall structure. The slow second movement, by contrast, sounds forlorn yet edgy, with an almost Mahler-like feel to it: emotional and deeply moving but not sentimental. I particularly liked the gentle rocking rhythm that the piano sets up around the four-minute mark, at which point the music takes a quite unexpected turn. The last-movement “Presto” continues without a break, suddenly shifting the music to an almost manic feel without changing the dark mood. Here, Zwilich does not use pauses for dramatic emphasis but, rather, long-held notes that suspend both the beat and the feeling until the music suddenly takes off again, almost lurching forward in short, jagged strokes.

The Septet follows, also in a minor key and again pursuing a dark, edgy quality. Her use here of a minor mode gives the music a slight Middle Eastern feel, while the syncopated cello line reminds one of the latter part of Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone music. The first movement comes to an almost crashing halt, while the second, opening with an ominous-sounding cello line, leads into a sad-sounding melody played by the viola before the other instruments enter, the string quartet sustaining long notes while the piano trio plays edgy music around them. Eventually the whole group merges to play a passionate lyric line before the piano’s stuttering but driving rhythm pushes the music to a quiet ending.

In the third movement, the stuttering piano opens things before the music again, surprisingly, shows a bit of jazz influence. The flatted third or “blue” note is featured in the piano line, and the strong syncopations allude to jazz as the whole group slowly attempts to swing. The quick coda of this movement leads immediately into the finale, titled “Au revoir,” which begins with another of Zwilich’s slow and achingly poignant Mahler-like statements before, suddenly and surprisingly, increasing the tempo and becoming edgy before again slowing down for the finale.

What a musical ride this is! Highly recommended, as usual for nearly everything Zwilich has written!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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