Gary Graffman (piano)
Blair McMillen (piano)
Todd Palmer (clarinet)
Grammy and Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon certainly doesn’t require an introduction, yet it’s remarkable how often people’s opinions of her music seem—for better or for worse—to be formed based on her fantastically successful orchestral works. This new release from Bridge Records showcases a more intimate collection of chamber works that are unmistakably Higdon’s but which explore different reaches of her musical interests than tend to find expression in her large and frequently blockbuster orchestral works. It’s a refreshingly different side of her music and a great starting place towards appreciating what makes this composer tick.
Leading off, An Exaltation of Larks (2005) is 16-minute work in a single extended movement originally commissioned for the Toyko Quartet. The composition is a natural match for the Lark Quartet, and not just because of its title. The Lark is a quartet rooted in tradition and lyricism, yet the four musicians have an openness and sensitivity to timbre that brings their interpretations nuance as well as occasional edge. Likewise, Higdon’s music is also rooted in traditional means and sources, yet handled with a sense of humor and curiosity that expands classical tradition even as it draws from it. In the right measure, the tension between these complimentary tendencies is eloquent, personal, and strikingly realized. An Exaltation of Larks begins tenderly and is never far from receding into a kind of hushed, expectant quiet, yet the piece blossoms in several forays into ever more ecstatic (and just bordering on frenetic) patterns of rapid string crossing. It’s a great showpiece for the Lark Quartet and an impressive tour-de-force of the many ways a skilled composer can manage to be expressive and creative even when adhering (mostly) to solidly traditional quartet writing. The ability to achieve Higdon’s level of sheer sonic interest via largely traditional means is one of her most attractive qualities as a composer—an incredibly vivid imagination combined with a certain plainspoken, straightforward demeanor. (Those who know her might agree that this is a rather accurate portrait of the composer herself!)
Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams (1999) adds Gary Graffman to the mix for a left-hand-only piano quintet. Higdon writes that the inspiration for this work came from her curiosity over about dreams of poets: “Because they presumably work in a world of imagination, would their dreams be different than what others might dream? Or are we all poets in our own dream worlds? The poet might be the main character or s/he might also just be part of the fabric, observing from the sidelines. This also represents the pianist’s role within a piano quintet, prominent but also just part of the story.”
This is especially true of the piano part in Higdon’s quintet, in which Graffman’s role is almost inconsequential enough to be superfluous, yet sparingly doled out over the entire composition to great effect—another example of Higdon’s economy of means providing character and interest. The movements lean toward the tranquil, although the third movement is worth noting for its positively nightmarish depiction of a host of electric insects. Here, Higdon breaks out all the stops including glissandi, tremolo passages, and ponticello effects punctuated by a funky groove in the low register of the piano—a rare eruption of instrumental color rendered all the more effective by the sturdy simplicity of the previous movements. Graffman’s playing is deft as always and the Larks pull off the virtuosity with a ferocity that made me imagine the cloud of rosin they must have inevitably produced during the recording session. By contrast, the quintet’s opening movement is a kind of cosmic reverie that cycles through all major keys, accelerating faster and faster through sudden changes of color, dynamics, and harmony.
The disc’s final offering, Light Refracted (2002) adds clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Blair McMillen to perform with members of the quartet. The work follows out of Higdon’s popular orchestral work Blue Cathedral. Inspired by Monet’s studies of the same subject viewed in different light, Higdon takes another look at her own musical materials and the result is a compelling two-movement work that becomes even more interesting for listeners who are already familiar with Blue Cathedral and will be able to appreciate the many ways that Higdon recasts that material.