Classical CD Reviews

RICHARD CORNELL: “Tracer – Recent Chamber Works” = New Fantasias; Tracer; Images; Acqua Alta – A Far Cry ens./Boston Musica Viva/Richard Pittman, dir./Peter Zazofsky, violin – Ravello Records

This composer has an interesting and eclectic voice.

Published on April 11, 2013

RICHARD CORNELL: “Tracer – Recent Chamber Works” = New Fantasias; Tracer; Images; Acqua Alta – A Far Cry ens./Boston Musica Viva/Richard Pittman, dir./Peter Zazofsky, violin – Ravello Records RR7869 [2/26/13] (Distr. by Naxos), 45:27 ***:

I do enjoy discovering new composers, at least those new for me. I must say in Richard Cornell, I am generally glad to have made the discovery.  Cornell studied at the Eastman School, New England Conservatory, and the Longy School of Music. He has held faculty positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Longy, the Berkshire Music Center, and is currently on the faculty of Boston University. In addition to the wholly acoustic works on this disc, he has written many works involving electronics, and in collaboration with his wife who is a video/visual artist.

Cornell’s work is a very unique and somewhat eclectic blend of sounds that I found pretty interesting to listen to. The opening New Fantasias is a work written for the contemporary string ensemble A Far Cry. As Cornell describes the intent, “In a fantasia we give free rein to whatever ideas occur, shaping them moment by moment (or so it seems)….In these pieces I continue to explore some of the ideas of my more recent work, and this results in a complex and hopefully rich expression. I invest a great deal in the harmony….” There is an omni-present bitonality to the harmony within the work that gives it a sort of tension throughout. In many ways, this work sounds like a blend of styles that were prevalent a good fifty or sixty years ago as well as a strangely compelling sound that speaks to today. A Far Cry is a very fine ensemble and I enjoyed this work, especially the atmospheric second movement, “In Dark Night.”

Tracer is a very interesting piece as well, that would benefit from listening to it in its proper context. Tracer is a score for video from virtual reality (for flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion) This was a commission from Boston Musica Viva with the video by Deborah Cornell. This work also has a bit of polytonal or atonal palate as its foundation and reminded me in a way of some of the miniatures by Webern or Krenek. According to the composer’s website, you can get a video clip of the work in context or performance which, thanks to Ravello and Cornell, you do not have to do. The whole video is embedded on the interactive disc. I found the video and music decidedly abstract and I admit I am no expert on the visual arts. However, there are interesting little bits of imagery that resemble primitive drawings of people, animals, symbols within or imposed among nearly monochromatic swirls of texture and colors. The abstract feel is still there but I did find the whole rather interesting and the Musica Viva is a very good, dedicated ensemble.

Images, also written for Boston Musica Viva, was, for me, the most interesting (enjoyable) work in the collection. Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, there is a more palpable imagery to the sound that I derived from the titles of the two “images.” The “Warring of the Sparrows” does sound a bit like some bizarre combat that could easily conjure up flight or territorialism. “Star Laden Sky” has an ethereal, mystical spaciousness to the sound with just a bit of unease.  As I said, this was very favorite work herein.

Acqua Alta is a very nice two movement work for solo violin, performed here quite well by Peter Zazofsky. The first movement, “La serenessima”, does have a “serenade”-like quality to it with elements of longing while the closing “acqua alta” has a strangely ominous feel to it (Perhaps in reference to what the Italian “high water” refers to. Venetians call the periodic swelling of the canals and the possible damage and danger inherent in same “acqua alta.”)  This is a good piece, though tense throughout.

I do find Richard Cornell’s music interesting. Here’s the thing: This is fairly academic, cerebral stuff written in a harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary that will not appeal to everyone. There are many very good composers whose writing is complex and structured tightly and where listening requires a bit of knowledge to truly appreciate what is happening. It seems that he is this type of composer. There are also many fine composers out there whose music seems intentionally approachable to the mass audience who has not heard a lot of “modern” music. He is not one of the latter.

—Daniel Coombs

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