Gerard Schwarz / Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra / Seattle Symphony Orchestra

Marga Richter: Poetic Images Beyond Poetry

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The three works by American composer Marga Richter heard here are what used to be called tone poems: distinctively scored single-movement orchestral works illustrative of specific external scenes or ideas. The recordings were made in the mid-'90s, in two different and not particularly sonically compatible locations in Seattle and Prague. The conductor throughout is Gerard Schwarz, who gets his name only in very small print but who has a real gift for this kind of thing. Richter's music is notable for its orchestration and for the variety of moods that follow from that orchestration. It may bring to mind what might have happened if Mahler had lived a long time and begun writing the edgier type of film music; critic Mark Lehman, quoted in Richter's own sleeve notes, compares the humorous-grotesque Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark (1992) to Nino Rota's music for Fellini's films. Richter's music is a good deal less tonal, but the comparison is apt, and the opening piccolo-contrabassoon sonority is a stroke of genius. The other two works, much longer, are also programmatic in inspiration, and they gain something if you refer to Richter's notes. The final piece, Spectral Chimes: Enshrouded Hills, may not sound like those things at first, but once you learn that it's inspired by images from Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles, it makes more sense, and its extremely unusual scoring -- string, woodwind, and brass quintets, with orchestra -- begins to approximate as few other works have the sensation of reading a complex novel with shifting groups of characters. Recommended, not just for those with an interest in this particular composer, but for anyone interested in the narrative possibilities of contemporary orchestral writing.

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