“An American Menagerie” = Works of AMLIN, MERFELD & HOUGHTON – viola & piano – MSR

“An American Menagerie” = MARTIN AMLIN: Kennel; Lullaby; Sonata; Violetta; ROBERT MERFELD: Animal Miniatures; MONICA HOUGHTON: Whalefall – Michelle LaCourse, viola/ Martin Amlin, p. – MSR Classics MS 1474, 49:48 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

This is an album of “animal” miniatures composed mainly by the pianist, Martin Amlin, currently Chairman of Composition and Theory at Boston University’s School of Music. Well, not entirely, but the American Kennel Club (which sets the pace for Kennel) and Robert Merfield’s Animal Miniatures (rural animals and the sounds of a summer night) do sort of dominate the coloring of this program. We must also be thankful that these pieces were written for viola and not violin, the former capable of so many more expressive sounds and nuances due to the richer tone and lower register.

Too often these sorts of animal pieces are dopey, contrived and almost insulting to the listener—unless they are children, and often even then—but not these. The music is first and foremost in everything, and it is attractive, tuneful, entertaining, and descriptive in an artsy sort of way instead of merely derivative. Amlin’s Violetta and Lullaby show him at his non-programmatic best in terms of short utterances, each a lovely foray into the beauties of the viola.

Whalefall, Monica Houghton’s marvelous portrayal of the death and fall to the ocean floor of a whale would seem to be a depressing topic for any composition of any genre; yet, Houghton sees a recessed beauty in the imagery, capturing the vastness of the inherent underwater landscape as portrayed in Elizabeth Bradfield’s poetry. But the best piece on the disc returns to Amlin in my opinion, his Sonata a real contribution to the viola literature in three absolutely characterful and radiant movements, “Chaconne”, “Interlude”, and “Rondo”. Michelle LaCourse, Viola Teacher and Chairman of the Department of Strings at the University of Boston, garners the riches to be found in all of these works, fully involved, committed, and technically adept. A gorgeous recital.

—Steven Ritter

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