Paul Moravec: Useful Knowledge; Vita Brevis; Characteristics

Various Artists

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Paul Moravec: Useful Knowledge; Vita Brevis; Characteristics Review

by Stephen Eddins

This album of music by Paul Moravec, who won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2004, includes two vocal works and a piano solo. The song cycle Vita Brevis sets five brief texts by a variety of poets that move through the course of life from birth to death. Scored for voice and string trio, the pieces skillfully exploit the additions the string sonorities make to the traditional pairing of voice and piano. Soprano Amy Burton, ably accompanied by Trio Solisti, sings them with lovely tone and a disarming naturalness. The composer describes the almost-20-minute Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy as a brief cantata for baritone and mixed chamber ensemble that includes oboe, string trio, piano, and glass harmonica. It uses a variety of quotes by Franklin juxtaposed in the manner of a fantasia, with little immediately apparent connection between them. Baritone Randall Scarlata sings with a warm, open tone. The use of the glass harmonica (an instrument Franklin invented) adds immeasurably to the interest of the piece, and the ensemble La Fenice and glass harmonica player Cecilia Brauer play with great finesse. Moravec's vocal lines in both works are lyrical but the text-setting is not generally particularly elegant or memorable. He seems freer as a composer when he is not bound to a text. Characteristics, a set of seven musical portraits of friends for piano, is the most accomplished and engaging work on the album. Its energy and spontaneity are immediately appealing; Simon Mulligan plays with liveliness and poetry, and it's a performance that asks for repeated hearings. The movements that are vigorously propulsive are especially attractive. Naxos' sound is mostly clean, detailed, and realistic, but Scarlata and the instruments are miked too closely in the Franklin piece and seem overwhelmingly close.

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