Bolcom’s Horn Trio & Violin Suite


BOLCOM: Trio for Horn, Violin & Piano.* Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin / Philip Ficsor, violinist; *Steven Gross, hornist; *Constantine Finehouse, pianist / Naxos 8.579102

Here is a CD from 2018 that I somehow missed when it was released, featuring two extended works by one of America’s more popular composers. But before going on I have to say that listing a string of awards given to composers and performers, especially a Grammy which is solely a political and often paid-for award (you might as well just buy yourself a loving cup and engrave “World’s Greatest (Whatever)!” on it for all the impact it makes on me), is absolute hubris and makes ZERO impression on me. Many and many a mediocre or poorly-written piece, performance and/or recording has won a Grammy, and there are even more pieces, performances and/or recordings of stupendous worth that have been ignored. So please, save it for the rubes. It doesn’t impress me.

As to the music, Bolcom happily ignored Johannes Brahms’ famous Horn Trio when he wrote his own, instead giving us his own style undiluted. It starts out with a strange, minor-mode opening with a downward motif played by the piano onto which the horn and then the violin add their own figures, eventually coming together in a crescendo before falling away again a gradual diminuendo. One difference with the Brahms Horn Trio is that Bolcom often uses all three instruments discretely whereas Brahms frequently has them play together, particularly the violin and horn. Another is mood. The Brahms trio is, in turn, warm and bucolic in nature, whereas the Bolcom trio has a dark, sinister undertone that is never really dispelled—not even in the fast second movement which is titled “Headlong, brutal.” And brutal it is, with short, slashing motifs played by horn and violin while the piano alternates between menacing low-register runs and chords and upper-range knife-like chords. Near the end of the movement, both tempo and volume are pulled back and Bolcom gives us odd, brief, staccato stabbing notes as a rideout.

The third movement, though not exactly sinister in the way the first two are, is mysterious (in fact, titled “As if from far away; misterioso”) yet still slightly menacing. What we hear from “far away” is not something warm and inviting, but something that suggests a “bad moon rising,”:if you know what I mean. It’s not quite sinister yet, but it’s on the verge. The final movement, “Quick March, very controlled and resolute,” returns us to the uneasy menace of the first two movements. Yet I rush to add that none of this is meant in a negative way. This really is brilliant and fascinating music; I only wish at least half of the modern composers whose work is constantly sent to me for consideration could write one-third as well as William Bolcom. This is a great piece.

Nor should one ignore the Solo Violin Suite. This, too is well crafted, and in mood and feeling completely different from the Horn Trio. Would that other modern composers also have more than “one voice” when writing music! It’s not exactly bucolic, but it is lyrical and quixotic at the same time, alternating between lyrical passages (with moving harmony to hold one’s interest) and others which tend towards the dramatic without really breaking out into completely dramatic passages. It should also be noted that Bolcom requires the violinist to play the entire range of his or her instrument, yet does not overload the soloist with superfluous “flashy” passages. Once again, every note and phrase means something and both follows from what had just transpired and leads into what is to come. As a result, even the most peculiar passages are somehow tied into the whole movement, and there are nine movements in the suite, most with descriptive titles such as “Morning Music,” “Dancing in Place,” “ Lenny in Spats,” Fuga malinconica” and “Finale: Evening Music.” And what an expressive and beautifully played and articulated performance Philip Ficsor gives! Here is someone well-known in the chamber music world as a member of the ensemble American Double, passionate about modern music and educational outreach to others, who in my opinion is a far better musician in both his sense of rhythm and his ability to add a spark to the music he plays than the vastly overrated (and much too musically reactionary) Frank Peter Zimmermann. In the sixth movement, “Barcarolle,” Ficsor even does an impressive Fritz Kreisler imitation, and that’s something that 90% of the violinists who play Kreisler’s music cannot do.

The only detriment to this record is its extremely short playing time, just a little over 40 minutes. Otherwise, this is a fantastic recording!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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