The disc features:
On Alligators (1972) for small ensemble, 14:50
Fourth string quartet (2000), 21:44
Natural Fantasy (1985) for organ, 12:53
Piano concerto # 3 (1983), 28:49
The 4th string quartet (2000) begins with slow-moving layers (here the harmonies are reminiscent of Bartok's 4th and 5th quartets but soon go their own way). Gradually faster gestures arise, and the more the one-movement quartet progresses, the quicker the succession of moments of dense gestures, developing with considerable speed, becomes. Only towards the end the music calms down again.
The music is highly polyphonic and masterful at that. It is a particularly dense and beautiful example for a certain kind of quartet writing:
The diverse strands are very disparate from each other, yet still the polyphony does not produce independent simultaneous lines; rather, one gesture or gestural complex - as a short outburst or more extended - is sculpted as a synergistic result of several of the disparate strands working together. To that aim, the leading voice in the polyphony changes rapidly between instruments or is divided among them, instead of remaining associated with one instrument for a longer period of time than just a brief moment. This holds particularly for the faster music that becomes more and more prominent. - The calming down at the end is into, for the most part of those few minutes, (quasi-) homophonic, beautifully harmonized music of great gestural strength and subtlety.
The music is so riveting and well crafted that I can say with confidence that this string quartet is one of the very best that I have ever heard - and I know quite well the quartets of Beethoven and Bartok (which are basically considered the benchmark for quartet writing), among other older ones, and also a number of the famous quartets of the last 50 years. During the many times that I have listened to the Wuorinen quartet, the music has become better and better for me with every single exposure, and it still surprises me with new riches each time.
The first movement of the piano concerto # 3 (1983) begins with a driven piano solo of great momentum and density, yet its narrative uses just a few basic gestural elements. The orchestra enters only in the second minute, and at first limits itself to lively drum percussion, supplementing the forward push of the music. Finally, after four minutes, other sections of the orchestra chime in, led by brass. The energetic momentum of the music remains unrelenting.
The second, slow movement, which spans almost half of the work's duration, is a musical marvel. It is captivating how the music, at a measured pace, more and more builds from static beginnings to agitated, affirmative outpourings of energy - towards the end leading to sharp brass attacks too. The music hovers between fluid lines and emphasized interval leaps; the balance between these shifts during the music and is continuously redefined in its expression. Abstract powers of gesture are at play, but to visceral effect. It is beguiling how in some places the melodic lines and timbral patterns are woven by interplay of the piano with harp and metallic percussion (mainly vibraphone).
The last movement is fast and features perpetual, intense forward drive just like the first one, yet from the start the music is much more a product of communcation between piano and the orchestra. Asymmetric rhythmic shifting of lines against each other brings about an intriguiging kind of instability amongst the unyielding momentum, which is broken only briefly in the middle for a moment of rest and reorientation. The ebullient, gutsy music has a joyous, assertive energy, bristling with life. The movement ends with an orchestral tutti that is dominated by a rollicking high-speed staccato line in the brass.
"Natural Fantasy" for organ (1985), duration about 13 min.:
The gestures in this work are quite abstract, yet form a fascinating fabric of music. After an extended, tense opening, grouped sequences of partially overlapping chords are heard. During each sequence the chords fan out within pitch space, a gesture that recurs from group to group in a varied way while the timbre becomes more and more bright. As the motion within the music becomes more agitated, the texture develops into a grand flickering of light that grows in vehemence. After a brief repose at about 5 minutes the game repeats itself - with intermediary phases - and eventually the music develops even more force than the first time around, along with a dramatic increase in chordal complexity and timbral saturation. Finally, the process flows into an organic end point in the form of an apotheotic and mighty effusion of saturated chords of extended duration.
The composer writes in the CD booklet how the work is unique in his catalogue, in the sense that "in all other works of mine, the note or pitch-class content has absolute priority over all other dimensions of a composition", whereas Natural Fantasy contains gestural shapes whose "actual note-content is made to fit the needs of the shape".
"On Alligators" (1972), the 15-minute title piece of this CD, is a work for small ensemble. I think in this work Wuorinen has not quite found a mature language yet (I do not, however, know other works from this earlier period as comparison). It features contrapuntal gestures that would be engaging, were it not that there is a constant use of shrill, strained sounds and a rigid employment of dissonance, both applied almost as a dogmatic compositional system. This continuous, unyielding and fatiguing bombardment with dissonance does not evoke an impression of the natural ease of true musicality, as it is found in the other works discussed here, where dissonance is much more functional. I am at a loss to find an expressive purpose for this kind of writing.
With the exception of "On Alligators", the very diverse works on this CD prove with authority that Charles Wuorinen is one of the great American composers. Wuorinen shares with Elliot Carter a predilection for composing uncompromising, dense "maximalist" music.