Charles Wuorinen


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Archæopteryx Review

by Uncle Dave Lewis

This disc is the seventh in a series of albums of prolific composer Charles Wuorinen for Albany that has proven more durable than a similar series for Music and Arts that went for three. It includes two pieces issued twice before on Koch with Wuorinen conducting the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble, Hyperion (1975) and Archaeopteryx (1978). Hyperion is superficially similar to one of Schoenberg's chamber symphonies except that it is denser, events fall upon one another faster, and it is generally louder for longer. However, the contrapuntal lines in the ensemble are always clear, and the piece does have a continuous sense of forward movement. It is to the credit of Wuorinen and the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble that there is such a dedicated sense of drive maintained in this thick, heavily busy piece. Archaeopteryx, a "pocket concerto" for bass trombonist and 10 instruments written for David Taylor, is a bit more intense and involving than Hyperion, but also more forbidding, and the sense of forward motion is not as easily sought out as it is in Hyperion.

The disc is filled out with Anton Webern's delicate and superbly realized 1912 arrangement of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, as played by James Winn and Cameron Grant; it too appeared on a Koch recording, in support of their rendition of Stefan Wolpe's The Man from Midian, later reissued on Naxos. This is followed by a "live" recording from Merkin Concert Hall, not previously released, of Cameron Grant and Richard Moredock in Wuorinen's four-hand piano arrangement of Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31. These works are included, we are told, "to underline a continuity." To some, to include the work of these composers as support to an album where only Wuorinen's name appears on the front cover will be a supreme example of egoism. However, Wuorinen has done his homework here; this arrangement of Schoenberg's Variations is exceptionally fine and in some ways illustrates Schoenberg's intentions a bit more clearly than the orchestral original does. Schoenberg's all-important hauptstimme is usually spelled out in right-hand octaves, so it does not become confused with the main texture, and the piece comes off a bit more obviously as a set of variations owing to the unanimity of the piano's sound.

The relatively early digital 1991 Koch recordings of the chamber orchestral pieces sound dated and a little harsh, even though remastered; there is a spatial aspect to Hyperion, as the instruments are divided into two groups "separated as widely as possible," but in the recording you can't hear this at all. Wuorinen's music is designed for fast ears, and even though texturally it is very busy, something about Hyperion compels one's attention and keeps you listening. This is less true of Archaeopteryx, while generally interesting as a rare vehicle for the bass trombone; the many shrieking chords in the winds employed, not to mention too frequent use of flutter-tongued brass, eventually wears ones ears out. No one knows what the birdsongs of Archaeopteryx might have sounded like, but it was probably not like this.

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