Ensemble Modern

Conlon Nancarrow: Studies

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Half of these terrific performances, by the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, are brilliant orchestrations of Nancarrow's piano works made by Yvar Mikhashoff; the rest of the CD is filled with little known chamber works in the composer's own scoring. Eleven of the legendary Studies for Player Piano open the album. Lines pop happily along, or skuttle like little animals, or march in lopsided jazzy rhythms, or sing in gentle free-ranging melodies, or boogie the night away in triple counterpoint and polyrhythmic layering. Study No. 14 is a particularly charming quartet instrumentation for bass clarinet, celesta, harpsichord, and doublebass (sort of, the Modern Jazz Quartet does Webern, or vice-versa). The wispish Tango (1984) and the abstract gypsy Toccata (1935) both share the same unusual instrumentation of xylophone, marimba, piano, and violin. Nancarrow's own orchestrations occupy the rest of the album, beginning with the initially splashy Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra (1986). Fast tongued brass patterns and gradually dispersed rhythm wind down to expansive, jazzily inflected long melodies that turn into angular marches and pensive gentle counterpoint. It is impossible to imagine what a "programme" could be for this piece. The Trio (1942), for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, is in three movements: a high energy comic Presto, a pastoral Andantino with bits of droll humor, and a laughing Allegro molto with brief ballad-like passages. The Sarabande and Scherzo (1930), for oboe, bassoon and piano, is the earliest composition, yet it still has that clarity of line, those touches of lightheartedness, and ever-certain direction that are to be found in all of Nancarrow's works.