Alla Cohen Asks Quaestiones & Gets Responsas

RR8017 - cover

QUAESTIONES ET RESPONSA / COHEN: Partita for Chamber Orch. in 6 Movements. String Quartet, “Three Tableau Noir.” Querying the Silence. Inner Temple for Chamber Orch. Prophecies, Series 4 & 5. Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet & Piano, “Querying the Silence.” Inner Temple for Cello & Piano / Alla Elena Cohen, pno; Izumi Sakamoto, ob; Sebastian Baverstam, cel / Ravello RR8017

Alla Elana Cohen (date of birth not available online) came to the U.S.A. from the Soviet Union in 1989, where she received the highest honors from the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. She now lives in Boston where she is a member of the faculties of both the Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory.

This double CD provides my first exposure to her music. From the very opening of the Partita for Chamber Orchestra, one is aware of her penchant for both modern harmonies and bright instrumental colors. At first, I thought that the music was going to be in that generic “edgy style” that seems so omnipresent nowadays, but within the first half-minute I became aware that Cohen develops her music, despite its modern harmonic bias, along traditional lines. It’s just more surprising and much less predictable than, say, the music of Richard Danielpour or Ned Rorem.

In addition to her colorful approach, Cohen keeps the listener tuned in my constantly shifting stress beats, rests, and even note duration. Very few of her phrases follow a “regular” metric pattern. Most of them begin in a specific tempo but quickly shift gears one way or another. The third movement of this Partita, titled “Stumbling Sarabande,” has a very distinct Middle Eastern or Eastern European feel about it—at first—before again shifting and morphing its rhythm in strange and unexpected ways. And even I, with my decades of experience in learning about myriad composers and styles of music, cannot say with any certainly who her influences were. Oh yes, one can hear slight hints of Stravinsky here, Bartók there, perhaps even a bit of Shostakovich, but her music sounds like no one else’s; it contains elements of virtually every school of music from the Baroque to the modern but comes out as completely original. (On her website, she states that “Her creative work is inspired by the Divine.”) The final “Gigue” of this Partita also sounds Middle Eastern, a bit like belly dance music, but it becomes wilder than that towards the end!

Her String Quartet, “Three Tableau Noir,” sounds like something from a film noir with its Eastern harmonies and the use of one of the violins like a Theremin. She is a master at creating moods, then pulling the rug out from under your expectations of where the music will go by changing gears and shifting rhythms and keys. Listeners with a shallow understanding of music will probably feel that she is being “gimmicky,” and I concede that I would understand that reaction, but her whimsical sense of construction and serious intent undermine that pat response. Listen, for instance, to the second of these “Tableau Noirs” and you will hear an alternation of the lyrical and the intense. Cohen shifts musical gears as quickly as the mind moves through different ideas. Perhaps that is her secret: she writes music to reflect the kinetic movement of thought patterns. This is especially apparent in the third of these Tableaux, where ideas are juxtaposed rapidly rather than developed.

The first piece here titled “Querying the Silence” is written for the odd duo of oboe and cello in two movements. Once again, Cohen follows her own muse, creating kinetic soundscapes to lure the listener in. But Inner Temple for Chamber Orchestra is an entirely different animal. The music here is edgy, almost violent in the first of its three movements, while the second, though slower, is also abrasive in its use of very close harmonies and metallic-sounding timbres (along with marimba commentary). The third movement is the edgiest of all, with flitting figures that come and go, sometimes interrupting the flow of the music.

Prophecies Series 4 for chamber orchestra is altogether more relaxed, congenial, even leaning towards tonality than Inner Temple. A cello solo is prominently heard in the first movement, along with flutes and strings, playing a sort of irregular 6/8 rhythm with several small deviations and interruptions. The second movement begins with a flute solo, followed by edgy tremolos played by the violas and celli against the basses. The violins again enter playing their own edgy tremolos with clarinets and other winds interjecting their commentary. In the third movement, we return to a more relaxed mode, with flute and pizzicato solo violin figures playing against one another with a cushion of winds.

Querying the Silence No. 2 is an unusual quartet for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano. The music here is whimsical, as if Cohen herself got a little lost in her whirling thoughts, but that is undoubtedly intentional. Prophecies, Series 5, picks up where the Series 4 left off, working its way around yet more juxtaposed rhythmic figures played by various soloists, piano and strings.

We end with the second Inner Temple for cello and piano. Again the music is unsettled in tonality, and again Cohen alternates passages of serenity with those of agitation. Truthfully, although I liked her style, I found that too much of this music sounds alike. Cohen never seems able to vary her approach, and the fragmented nature of each piece is almost too demanding on the listener’s attention, particularly since none of it really leads anywhere. All of her music ends unresolved but not in a sense that leaves the listener wanting to hear more. This is a flaw I’ve noted in a lot of modern music nowadays, so although I admired several pieces on this set, I can’t say that I recommend it without reservation. It’s a fine line between unreserved recommendation and real disapproval.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Alla Cohen Asks Quaestiones & Gets Responsas

  1. Alla Elana Cohen says:

    Dear Lynn Rene Bayley,

    Thank you for reviewing my CD set “Quaestiones et Responsa”.
    I would like to point to some factual mistakes, which I hope you will correct on your website: I was surprised to read that there are no names of the performers anywhere. Please look inside the package – there are the names of all the performers on the right inside of the package with 2 CDs, above the compartment for CD 2 – this whole page is dedicated solely to performers, the track numbers and all the names of the performers for each piece are there. And, in addition to this page, I mentioned my performers Izumi Sakamoto and Sebastian Baverstam in my program notes for “Querying the Silence” for oboe and cello, in the booklet which one finds in the central sleeve of the package, as the piece was written specially for them; also I wrote on the page with credits (which is also on the inside of the package): My heartfelt gratitude goes to all my wonderful performers who played my music so brilliantly and with such inspiration.

    Also there is in the beginning of paragraph 5 a mistake in the title of the piece: it is “Querying the Silence”, not “Obeying the Silence”.

    Thank you,

    All the best,

    Alla Elana Cohen
    Berklee College of Music


    • Dear Ms. Cohen: I generally do not read liner notes when they start talking about relating music to boys walking through forests or the grief of not being loved, which your notes had in abundance. I expect performers to be identified on the CD back cover or inlay. Moreover, I do not receive hard copies of most of the CDs I review, particularly not from the Ravello-Navona group which is exceptionally stingy with hard copies of CDs for critics. Nonetheless, I have added their names to the review header and fixed the typo you mentioned.


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