ELENA RUEHR: LIFT – Chamber Music by Elena Ruehr: Lift; Second Violin Sonata; Klein Suite; Adrienne and Amy; Prelude Variations; The Scarlatti Effect — Irina Muresanu, violin/ Jennifer Kloetzel, cello/Sarah Bob, piano/ Ethan Eilner, viola — Avie AV2319, 67:31 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
This collection of recent (1997 to 2012) chamber music by Elena Ruehr is a glorious-sounding and exquisitely performed disc. The reproduction is a perfect combination of detail and reverberation that is mesmerizing. As I mentioned in a previous review of an orchestral disc of music by this Guggenheim fellow, the music here is full of resplendent melodies that she describes as “the most complex and human of musical experiences.” Her background as a dancer provides her music with a rhythmic pulse, yet there’s depth here. “The idea is that the surface be simple, the structure complex,” she explains.
A common element in these works is the composer’s reference to older music and musicians who have taught and inspired these chamber works. The album title, Lift (2013) was inspired by Nobel Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai, the student activist who was shot by a Taliban gunman for promoting education and equal rights for women. She survived and has become an international spokeswoman for her cause. Its dedicatee, cellist Jennifer Kloetzel (of the Cypress String Quartet), is the soulful performer of this work that combines lyricism with sincerity that reflects Malala’s cause. The Second Violin Sonata’s (2012) three movements are tributes to the composer’s musical mentors: her teacher William Balcom; jazz pianist and composer Eddie Russ who taught her as a teenager and Oscar Peterson, who Ruehr met in 1980. It’s a jazz-inflected work that expresses a variety of emotions: contemplation; plaintive musings and funky utterances.
Klein Suite (2011) was commissioned by the Klein International String competition in San Francisco as a competition performance piece. The composer uses Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas as an inspiration. It’s virtuosic and melodic, with a tart Middle Eastern flavor in the Andante and some down home fiddling in the Allegro. Adrienne and Amy (2009) was composed in honor of composer Amy Beach (using a motive from her A Hermit Thrush at Morn) and her biographer Adrienne Fried Block. In the first movement, the bird call motive is a vibrant jazzy-ostinato that vibrates underneath Ruehr’s pungent melodies. A brief quiet interlude leads to a final movement that contrasts ostinatos (piano) with expressive strings. Its complexity is a welcome challenge.
Prelude Variations (2008) was commissioned for amateurs and based on two Bach Preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier. The viola and cello produce a mellow sound, but the work lacks forward movement. There’s a sense of yearning and regret. The Scarlatti Effect (1997) for piano trio uses excerpts from Scarlatti’s piano sonatas to construct a score that the composer describes as playful and lighthearted. It’s easy on the ears and filled with melodies that are a distinctive trademark of this composer. But it ends with dissonances that brought a smile to my face—reminiscent of the conclusion of Charles Ives’ Second Symphony. This is a collection of chamber music that reflects the current age of tonality with enough modern techniques to make it interesting.