Jacques Cohen

Music for Strings

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In its quiet way, this British release is something of a triumph for contemporary music. The music is mostly unfamiliar, with only one short excerpt from a famous piece (the "Old Castle" passage from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged for strings), and a couple of rarely heard pieces by moderately well-known composers, Malcolm Arnold and Andrzej Panufnik; in the latter case what is heard is the composer's final work, unfinished and completed by his daughter, Roxanna Panufnik. No one is going to feel on familiar terrain here. And yet the pieces all seem to hang together and appeal to the listener at a basic level. A good deal of the music is funny, something thought to be impossible without the existence of a commonly agreed-on musical language. But perhaps that's what's happening here: a language is gradually being agreed-upon as widely comprehensible. None of this music rejects tonality, and all of it is touched by the idea of simplicity that has arisen at various times over the last century in response to the efforts of systematizers. But none of it is minimalist, or neo-classic, or neo-Romantic. The biggest find is the Suite for Strings by 16-year-old Swiss-born composer Salomón Cuéllar, whose fast-slow-fast movement pattern clearly suggests Baroque models. The composer makes something entirely new out of these by now extremely established materials, which is quite a trick. He builds the outer movements out of basic voice-leading progressions that are timed in unusual ways, with a note proceeding long enough in the cellos to make you think it's a drone but then giving rise to a new direction. Rohan Kriwaczek's Bee Sting Dance in Rohan's Kitchen, combining two preexisting pieces in this new string arrangement, is a brisk updating of the old virtuoso violin dance encore pieces, and conductor Jacques Cohen's Yigdal combines traditional Jewish materials with aspects of minimalism. The ensemble is superbly trained, sensitive, and, perhaps most important, successful in avoiding having the fun drilled out of it; Arnold's Variations on a Ukrainian Folksong (1944) is a masterpiece of understated humor, answered by the sublime calm of the Panufniks' Moditwa (Prayer). Intelligently programmed, this disc is compelling from start to finish.

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