Peter Serkin / Lois Martin / Brentano String Quartet

Charles Wuorinen: Scherzo; String Quartet No. 1; Viola Variations; Piano Quintet No. 2

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Charles Wuorinen is not a composer whose music is likely to hold much appeal for casual listeners. He demands that audiences pay close attention to his rigorously modernist music, but for listeners who like unambiguously atonal music, his work can be exhilarating. Part of its appeal lies in the virtuoso ability that it requires of performers. Whatever one may think of the music itself, it would be hard to deny that it gives performers a chance to dazzle with old-fashioned bravura display. A prime example is the Scherzo for piano. Peter Serkin, an outstanding advocate of new music, does indeed deliver a dazzling performance of the hyper-kinetic, dramatically volatile piece. Another part of the appeal of Wuorinen's work is its indisputable musicality. While his harmonic language and use of extreme dissonance may put some listeners off, the musical gestures always have a sense of inevitability, an expressive shapeliness, and even an idiomatic gracefulness. His writing is uncompromisingly complex, but at the same time it sounds like it's driven as much by an urgent need for emotional communication as by cerebral logic. His music always seems to be saying something coherent, even though it may take intensely focused listening, and repeated listenings, to come to terms with his uncompromising level of discourse. Three of the pieces -- the piano Scherzo, Viola Variations, and the Second Piano Quintet -- were written in 2007 and 2008 and are recorded here for the first time, and the fourth piece, his First String Quartet, dates from 1971. The performers who join Serkin -- violist Lois Martin, violinists Curtis Macomber and Jesse Mills, cellist Fred Sherry, and the Brentano String Quartet -- are brilliant, seasoned veterans of the new music scene, and they tackle this daunting repertoire with absolute technical assurance and a transparent delight in the opportunities the music offers for emotional and dramatic expression. Naxos' sound is clean, detailed, and nicely ambient.

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