In Seasonal Music, Christopher Stark demonstrates a mastery of string quartet writing, compositional inventiveness, while acknowledging that music could not be where it is now without having had such glorious past.
With a definite sense of new beginnings, “Spring” jumps out of the gate with frantic outbursts, scratchy “bridges”, snappy, jazzy, scrappy interventions, followed by a tonic of refreshing trills. Heights are then scaled even as verdant melodies move in and out of some very unsettled whether/weather, soon accompanied by brooding harmonic bliss. The birds are everywhere—no wonder a few drops of Vivaldi take us back centuries before a covey of whistles indicate all is well, high and low. Plunk!
“Summer into Fall” lifts off with some painful unions, as the grim, homogeneous metamorphosis moves steadily forward. A startling eruption of times past (also Vivaldi) makes no doubt that fall is upon us, then gradually calms as appropriately “woody” hues brings everyone safely home.
There is an immediate, thoughtful, no-rush, tone and atmosphere to “Winter”. Soon, consonances provide warmth amongst the moments of anguish, and dollops of hurt. Silence is artfully employed, heralding further quests and a wonderful moment of arpeggiated joy. A series of episodes—some over a bed of pizzicati—leads to a remarkable feeling of “each to his own”, group discussions and a few Rite of Spring, two-note agreements. Below upper busyness lurk long legato lines and a playful game of “Tag, we’re all it!” That is followed by what feels like an “Ode to Snow”, in the woods, freshly fallen with the sun doing its sparkling magic. Everyone then vanishes, leaving the alluring “sound” of niente in memory for many seasons to come.
The members of the Momenta Quartet were able champions of Stark’s wide-ranging score. Almost no inadvertent open strings were heard as the catalogue of effects was rendered to excellent advantage. The ability to blend as necessary or take stage on demand, also ensured page after page of shifting colours throughout.
Piano Quartet, The earliest piece on this disc (2014) is tautly written and well played by the Los Angeles String Quartet. “Assisi” is engagingly fuelled by a three-note motif, cleverly developed and filled with delightful contrasts. Pianist Xak Bjerken delivers his contributions as delicate as his string colleagues or with thundering power at will. Violist Katherine Murdock and cellist Steven Doane seamlessly hand over their lines (one unison is amazing) while violinist Mikhail Kopelman “chatters” above and the piano adds bits of texture. The muted “tolls for thee” piano/viola melody combination is ultracool. The ascendant finish also allows for thematic reflection, completing the circle. More than any other, this movement yearns for a cinematic treatment.
All of the players are ideally wound up for “Meccanico,” effusing energy and passion that briefly turns into a free for all: “A side order of jazz with your punctuation?” “Yes!” Then as fast as you can render “snap”, the bouncy trio brings new meaning to nervoso. After a few reluctant farewells, everyone slips away into the night.
“Precisamente” is an apt description of the finale. The intrepid performers dig deep and very nearly toss off a note-perfect result. Much of this vibrant writing consists of strings/piano conversations at times argumentative, at others informative. Listeners will savour every measure.
In many ways, the musical highlight of This Is Not a Story, is the superb artistry of clarinetist Scott Andrews who clearly chooses his reeds with same dedication and care that Stark employs in putting these deeply personal movements together. The Calyx Trio are model accompanists, in the main, with special mention to pianist Nina Ferrigno who can jazz it up or summon a pianissimo of the quietist order.
“Inner Dialogue,” ushered in out of nowhere by reflective Andrews before feverish strings (Catherine French, violin; Jennifer Lucht, cello—both models of surety throughout) bring to uneasy life the agitated middle section, which soon reveals a troubled mind. At first the bells add to the emotional confusion (where they “too for me”?). But once things simmer down, the ear is rewarded with a comforting soundscape, soothing one and all. A brief build and a breath of silence returns the bells even as the piano joins the toll. The movement drifts away, with, hopefully, more resolution than angst.
In just two minutes, Stark offers a saucy sorbet that is even more infectious as Beethoven’s first piano sonata is slipped into the mix where some ears might well wonder if the first note is on the beat or a pickup to the first. What better choice than to let Stark sort it out!
As “Cecilia Sings the Music in Her Heart; Captain Leighton Bids Farewell” begins, many of us may revel in the “breathgiving” sounds and the always intriguing notion of, “Can you see the wind?” Once more, Andrews sets the tone in a manner that could aptly be described as delicatissimo. Sidney Cowell’s field capture lets Leighton do the “talking”—“Good bye, farewell…” even as the instrumentalists offer their comments and support, right to the very last gasp. JWR