While the string music of Robert Carl may have its vaguely metaphysical aspects, as suggested by its existential or spiritual subtitles, its musical values are less conjectural; ingenious part writing, strong linear profiles, brusque harmonies, and rugged timbres are unexpected qualities in works that portend to be mystical or transcendental. There is no ephemeral preciosity or cosmic tone-painting in these pieces, just intensely expressive lines, solid dissonant counterpoint, coherent repartee, and textures that make a small ensemble sound greater than the sum of its parts. Open for string trio (1998) seems much fuller and richer than it should, indeed almost like a quartet; this may be due in part to the Adaskin String Trio's strongly defined, clearly audible playing, but Carl deserves most of the credit for maximizing his resources and spreading out the strings over a wide sonic range, thus creating a big, quasi-orchestral effect. If that wasn't impressive enough, the String Quartet No. 2, "Fear of Death/Love of Life" (2000-2001), really brings across the group's awesome range, and violinist Annie Trépanier and the Adaskin String Trio are almost breathtaking in their sweeping sound and powerful emotions.
Perhaps less compelling for its rather conventional expressions and techniques is the awkwardly inserted Violin Sonata No. 2, "Angel-Skating" (1999), which suffers in comparison with the two all-string pieces because of Carl's indecisive, try-anything writing for violin and piano. Is this an avant-garde experiment with pointillism, a postmodern catalog of clichés, or a neo-Romantic work that reaffirms the roles of soloist and accompanist? Though violinist Katie Lansdale and pianist John McDonald play well together, and give the music a reasonably coherent reading, the composer's intentions are not clear, and the sonata seems to fall apart because of an excess of ideas that don't gel.
Considering that two out of the three offerings are striking, imaginative, and worth multiple hearings, this disc deserves serious attention and merits inclusion in any collection of modern chamber music. New World's audio is focused and vibrant.