Thursday, 4 October 2007

CD Review - Fable, Forms and Fears

Fable, Forms and Fears - Meyer Media MM07008

Paul Richards is a young American composer who writes in a complex, yet approachably melodic style. Born in New York in 1969, Richards comes from a musical family (his father is a cantor). He studied at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Arizona and is now professor of composition at the University of Florida. In other words, Richards is a member of that amazing group of American composers who are embedded in academe, write well crafted, well thought out music which is eminently performable. It almost goes without saying that these composers are also nowhere near as well known as they ought to be.

This new disc showcases Richards's chamber music, written between 1996 and 2003. Whilst the music on the disc is genuine chamber music, this does not mean that the instrumentation is conventional. The pieces here are written for such combinations as violin, guitar and piano, violin and guitar, piano and percussion.

In all these Richards shows a fine ear for different combinations of timbres and is immensely sympathetic to balance problems inherent in the combination of violin, guitar and piano. At no time do you feel that the piano overwhelms the other 2 instruments, as it quite easily could. Of course it helps to have sympathetic interpreters as Richards does here.

The disc opens with 'Hypercube', a work from 2001 for percussion (Kenneth L Broadway) and piano (Kevin R. Off). Here Richards makes a patchwork of six independent musical compositions according to a mathematical algorithm. The result is kaleidoscopic with some lovely imaginative textures and insistent rhythms.

Insistency (and incisiveness) of rhythm is often a common element in these pieces. 'The Great Octopus' (written 1996) for guitar and digital media is a fascinating combination of Latin American flavoured rhythms on the guitar and digital events. It is in fact a tale of an Octopus 'who, after swallowing a guitarist, begins to play his instrument'! The piece is superbly realised by Matthew Albert Gould.

'Cypriot Structures' from 2003 is a trio of pieces for violin (Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould), guitar (Matthew Albert Gould) and piano (Nathanael May). Each piece represents a site in Northern (Turkish) Cyprus ('The Walls of Famagusta', 'The Ruins at Salamis', and 'The Castle at Kyrenia'). They were commissioned for musicians in residence at Eastern Mediterranean University. The first piece, 'The Walls of Famagusta' is lively and rhythmic with a lovely exotic cast to the melodic outlines. Richards never apes foreign manners, but teases you with fragments and hints. 'The Ruins at Salamis' are altogether quieter and more atmospheric whilst the final movement 'The Castle at Kyrenia' seems to hint at gypsy elements in amongst the lively and interesting ensemble. I did not find that any of the pieces evoked memories of the places in Northern Cyprus (which I have visited). But that doesn't matter, they give plenty of scope for the imagination.

'Rush Hour' (written in 2000) is a dramatic piece for horn (Paul Basler) and piano (Keevin R. Orr). The strenuous piano part is well realised by Basler and the at times strident horn part is perhaps very apt for the subject matter of the piece.

'Asphalt Gypsy' from 1999 is a lively and tango-ish little piece for the unusual combination of violin (Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould) and guitar (Matthew Albert Gould). Richards explores the different timbres of the instruments and the piece is relished by the performers.

'A Butterfly Coughs in Africa' (2003) is written for clarinet choir. The University of Florida Clarinet choir under David Waybright give a fine performance and no allowance needs to be made for the sound of the group. Richards generates the entire charming work from the opening 5-note gesture.

The final work on the disc 'Falling on Lobsters in the Dark' was originally written for rock band but has been re-worked for the same instrumental combination as 'Cypriot Structures'. The result mirrors much of the other material on the disc, with lively, insistent rhythms combined with short, perky melodies.

Richards's style is approachable but requires work; none of these pieces is strictly easy listening. But they do respond to work; there is much to discover on repeated listening.

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