Best Chamber Portrait CD and Best New Recording Artist 2017

Scott Wollschleger, Soft Aberration (New Focus, 2017)

Longleash, Passage (New Focus, 2017)

Scott Wollschleger’s compositions are written in an amalgam of different styles, onto which he puts a personal stamp, creating pieces that are full of savory surprises. Wollschleger’s debut portrait CD on New Focus, Soft Aberration, contains five pieces that show his eclecticism to best advantage.

It certainly helps that the performers he has enlisted are some of the most talented youngish players on New York’s contemporary classical scene. The piano trio Longleash is a powerhouse. They present Wollschleger’s ostinato-laden Brontal Symmetry with kinetic verve and an eye towards detail. The work’s more active passages are eruptive. Just as you think that the groove is locked in, a beautifully meditative section interrupts the inexorable gallop with haloing harmonics and the introduction of less dissonant harmonies. Eventually, the opening material returns, now transformed to contain less symmetry. Slowly, the gears grind to a halt.

Longleash’s cellist, John Popham, presents the multiple simultaneous strands of America both distinctly and as interlocking motoric rhythms. The piece is a cousin to Brontal Symmetry, and its range of activity makes it an impressive showcase. Soft Aberration demonstrates a bit of a Morton Feldman influence, if one that is compressed into a fourteen minute long piece. Still, the use of soft, slow, off-kilter repetitions and the way in which wayward viola melodies are harmonized by piquant piano verticals is striking. Violist Anne Lanzilotti and pianist Karl Larson present a focused, riveting performance.

On three separate tracks distributed throughout the CD, soprano Corrine Byrne and trumpeter Andrew Kozar (who also plays in loadbang) perform sections of Bring Something Incomprehensible Into this World (Parts 1-3).  Chirruping high notes from Byrne are matched by muted interjections from Kozar; both get an ample dose of  microtonal inflections and glissandos to impart. These duets demonstrate a playful side to Wollschleger’s work that is appealing.

Mivos Quartet performs “White Wall,” a two-movement string quartet in which short motives played in harmonics, rustling string noise, whistling glissandos and, for good measure, more harmonics of the plucked variety, create a fragilely intense atmosphere. The second movement moves us into one of Wollschleger’s trademark off-kilter grooves, interrupted with multi-stop glissandos. It then goes sideways into a sostenuto passage for solo cello. A gradual build-up back to tempo is established, this time with the lower register leading the foray. The presence of the upper strings is fully reestablished and then the cello too climbs upward. A return to the effects-laden character of the beginning of the quartet resumes. Vertical harmonies tantalize with pitch centers, but destabilize things just as quickly, making the overall trajectory seem to ooze further and further away from conclusion: a moving target. Another soft cello interlude appears, this time made up of string noise and harmonics. Whispered text and a gale of loud pizzicatos abruptly thrust the piece into a coda that then dissolves into hushed spookiness.

Violinist Pala Garcia and pianist Renate Rohlfing met Popham during their studies in New York at Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School. They gave their first concert as Longleash in 2013. The name comes from a covert CIA program that was used to advance contemporary American music in Europe during the Cold War.  The trio released Passage, their debut CD, in Fall 2017. As on Softer Aberration, Longleash plays vivaciously, expressively, and with keen virtuosity that extends to a host of extended techniques.

Christopher Trapini’s Passing Through, Staying Put is, according to the composer, “a study in contrasts between motion and stasis.” String chords slide from harmony to harmony, sharp melodic stabs and pizzicatos are offset by angular keyboard verticals. The material morphs from more active to reposeful demeanors in an effective series of contrasts. Il dolore dell’ombra, by Clara Iannotta, is written in homage to Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor. One can hear scraps of material that reference Ravel’s language in whisps and fragments but, as is the intent, it is nearly engulfed by the strong presence of Iannotta’s interest in resonances from both pitch and noise-based spectra. Once again, cascading string glissandos, some bleating like birdsong, wreath a more propulsive piano part that explores the bass register of the piano in contrast to the prevailing altissimo range inhabited by the strings. The second movement finds the piano bifurcated between extreme treble and bass registers, while the strings enact screeching slides. This is interrupted by a more inward-directed interlude, with sustained harmonics and pianissimo chordal interjections from the piano. Impressionist harmonies burble to the surface; Ravel’s trio asserts itself while the 21st century techniques momentarily seem in retreat. The third movement returns to a more energetic, almost dance-like demeanor. Once again harmonics and inside-the-piano work reign supreme.

Yukiko Watanabe’s ver_flies_sen is inspired by the water imagery in the art of Brazilian painter Adriana Varejã. A diaphanous-textured miniature, its use of glissandos and harmonics reflects a similar palette to the one in Trapini’s piece; but here it is deployed with extreme delicacy and gradual pacing. Juan de Dios Magdaleno’s Strange Attractors, intricately constructed using fractal mathematics, has a less straightforward trajectory than the other works on the CD, but it is no less compelling. Indeed, its labyrinthine structure shows an imaginative composer at work. The disc closes with Corde vuolte by Francesco Filidei: a horse of another color, it is a paean to open string sonorities.

Passage demonstrates that even in the midst of the advanced techniques now again in vogue in the early 21st century, there are a plethora of manners of deployment of these materials. The performers are top notch advocates for composers at the vanguard of the second modern movement. One can envision a bright future for both Longleash and the composers they champion.

Scott Wollschleger’s Soft Aberration is Sequenza 21’s Best Chamber Portrait Recording 2017. Longleash are Sequenza 21’s Best New Recording Artists 2017.

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