Colin Clarke
March 1, 2010

Elliott Schwartz’s music uses collage to a great degree. Juxtaposition can be stark, including the use of tonal against the non-tonal. Quotations may be present. He also uses “frame notation” extensively, a technique possibly most famously used by Lutosławski.

There is a lovely spatial element to the First Chamber Concerto of 1976 that is lost in recording. Twice, ensemble performers leave their seats and walk back to join the percussionists at the rear of the stage, and then maintain steady but unsynchronized beats as a backdrop for the solo double bassist. One is invited to imagine the stage movements while undergoing the CD experience. Just as is the case with Birtwistle when he uses similar techniques, the musit stands on its own merits when shorn of visuals. The sense of exploration is visceral. Anthony D’Amico is a fine soloist, and is recorded with admirable clarity.

The astute listener will find references to Tchaikovsky and Sibelius in the First concerto; the Second references Mahler and Brahms. Dating from the same year, it is scored for solo clarinet and nine players. It is the shortest of the six, coming in at 7:22. Gary Gorczyca is the agile clarinetist who bravely takes on his colleagues (there is the distinct sense of solo versus ensemble here). The Third Concerto, “Another View,” is influenced by Vaughan Williams (the composer who formed the subject of Schwartz’s doctoral thesis). The subtitle actually refers to the revised score that Schwartz prepared for this very recording. Decoration of lines via repetition, turns, trills, mordents, and such forms the basic technique. The piece’s darkest point is located around half way through, acting as a still point before the music explodes into action. Nina Ferrigno is a wonderfully musical pianist on the present showing. It is very obvious that she listens to what goes on about her. It would be good to hear more from her.

Like the First Concerto, the Fourth of 1981 includes a performance ritual element. The saxophone soloist gets the exercise, physically allying himself with various groups. Eliot Gattegno plays magnificently. Schwartz begins with a dense texture that slowly, over the course of the piece, unravels itself. Here, it is Michael Tippett that is a major influence, but there are moments that would be far too extreme for him (the outburst just before the eight-minute mark).

Moving forward a decade, the Fifth Concerto of 1991 offers a quieter, more placid experience. Schwartz foregrounds the bassoon in a work whose content is apparently generated by the theme for a long-defunct BBC murder-mystery television series. Again, the score we hear is a recent revision. There are moments of pure beauty, of a simplicity that is rare in the earlier works. Finally, the Sixth Concerto, inspired by Thomas Jefferson (“next to Einstein, history’s most distinguished amateur violinist,” according to the composer). Fragments of music that Jefferson kept in his library are referenced by Schwartz. During the final portrait section, two patriotic Revolutionary War songs are heard. Each of this concerto’s five movements reflects on a different aspect of Jefferson: inventor, violinist, gardener, lover, and subject of art (specifically the Gilbert Stuart portrait, currently in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The third movement, “The Garden,” is particularly lovely, while the fourth section, “The Letter,” refers to Jefferson’s relationship with the flutist and composer Maria Cosway during his time in Paris. Throughout, Charles Dimmick’s strong playing is masterly.

This is a fascinating issue. Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project play with an authority that seems directly analogous to that shown by groups such as the London Sinfonietta. This may well be Want List material.

— Colin Clarke

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