This interesting and varied disc caught my attention for a couple of reasons. The first is a work by Leo Brouwer, born in Cuba in 1939, whose music was first introduced to me by a classical guitar playing friend, and I heard many of the composer's recordings as a guitarist and composer for that instrument. The second reason is that two of the works feature the đàn bầu - a Vietnamese monochord instrument, which has the power to move me like few other instruments can. When I think of Vietnamese music, the đàn bầu is the first thing that springs to mind.
The first work, presented by this excellent Houston, Texas ensemble, Apollo Chamber Players, is Leo Brouwer's String Quartet No 6, Nostalgia de las Montañas (2018). The work opens with a slow violin entry, somewhat airy and mysterious, but this soon gains power and drive as other instruments are added. This does not last, as a quiet almost misty episode evolves, with the feeling of a lament. This gradually becomes busier, but subsides again, before the dance like Preámbulo appears without a break. Whilst certainly a modern work, the music is fresh, engaging and atmospheric. The percussive and energetic coda rounds off this movement beautifully.
Listen — Leo Brouwer: Preámbulo (String Quartet No 6)
(track 1, 5:29-6:16) © 2019 Navona Records LLC :
The second track, actually the third movement, entitled 'Sonata', contains contrasting sections and could almost stand by itself. The string playing here is superb, and this work was commissioned by these players, who show an innate understanding of the music, which relies on taut rhythmic changes and very clean articulation over quite a large dynamic range. No one part dominates, and the work requires a high degree of technical prowess from all the players equally.
The next work, Four Dreams (2016) by Christopher Walczak, was inspired by the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime and is in three movements. The first, 'The dream of the sun, moon and stars', depicts the Aboriginal association between dreamtime and creation. It opens in a sparse and quiet fashion, and is somewhat fragmented, before it takes a more solid form, starting first in the cello, and becomes denser, more percussive and somewhat dance-like.
The second movement, 'The dream of the statue and the tree', explores how one type of dream can merge or develop into another. Again it starts quietly with tremolo, from which fragments emerge, but the first part is largely fairly serene, with splashes of intensity and colour that gradually become a little more predominant, and the movement ends with a kind of serene and thoughtful chant-like passage.
'The Dream of the Ladder' depicts the interchange between the physical, human and sacred worlds which are all connected by a ladder. This movement is vibrant and intense, in contrast to the two previous movements.
Listen — Christopher Walczak: The Dream of the Ladder (Four Dreams)
(track 5, 1:14-2:13) © 2019 Navona Records LLC :
Again this work requires a lot from the members of the string quartet, who are certainly up to the task, and the performance is insightful and powerful.
The next work, Mây (Cloud), by Vũ Nhât Tân and Vân-Ánh Võ (2018), features the fabulous and highly regarded đàn bầu player Vân-Ánh Võ and string quartet. It is a reflection of the sounds, activities and personal feelings of the composer to Hanoi. It begins with a đàn bầu melody over which the string quartet weaves. It is evocative and quite varied, although a pentatonic melody remains throughout, as well as quite a lot of microtonal writing, at which this instrument excels. I have spent a bit of time in the old quarter of this city, and also had the privilege of hearing a little concert on traditional instruments at the Temple of Literature, and this music bought a lot of that back. You will be amazed at the variety of sounds and textures. This is a very personal statement of the love for a great city. You may at first find this work a bit strange, but persevere with it and you will come to love it.
The last work, by Alexandra du Bois, entitled Within Earth, Wood Grows (2010), is for đàn bầu and a larger group of instruments. The work explores the growing relationship between the USA and Vietnam, once locked in a deadly and tragic conflict. This is often symbolised by pairings of instruments, representing different aspects of the relationship. The programme booklet, enclosed in the cover, explains this quite well. It is a complex work, as is the relationship and history between the two countries. I believe this piece to be powerfully effective in meditating on this relationship and the various phases it has gone through. It is a work to be listened to rather than explained, I think.
Listen — Alexandra du Bois: Within Earth, Wood Grows
(track 7, 6:35-7:18) © 2019 Navona Records LLC :
Not everyone will like the works on this disc, which are often challenging, but I think this is exciting music, written within the last decade, and all performers are absolutely committed and skilled enough to make it a very satisfying endeavour.
Copyright © 14 February 2020