Passionate Diversions = ELLEN TAAFFE ZWILICH: Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass and Piano; Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello; Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet—Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio/Miami String Quartet/Michael Tree, viola/Harold Robinson, bass – Azica ACD71292, 59:02, [Distr. by Naxos] (4/29/14) ****:
Ellen Taaffe Zwillich has had the good fortune to be the subject of one of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons, in which the diminutive cartoon star attended the premiere of the composer’s Concerto for Flute. That led to the composition of Peanuts Gallery for piano and orchestra, a 1997 work written for a Carnegie Hall children’s concert that became the basis for the second PBS documentary to feature her music, Peanuts Gallery. It has aired hundreds of times nationwide since its 2006 PBS debut.
This is hardly the first recognition of the prolific seventy-four-year-old composer, who has received four Grammy nominations, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, Musical America’s 1999 Composer of the Year award, and six honorary doctorates, among many other awards. After receiving a B.M. of music in 1960, Zwilich played violin with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, and became the first woman to earn the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts in composition at Juilliard (1975). Her early compositional style was modern and strident, but changed when her husband died in 1979. She began to write in a more tonal style that could communicate immediately with audiences. Her breakthrough work, Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony No. 1) won the Pulitizer Prize in 1983. Zwilich’s career flourished, writing numerous orchestral works, concertos and chamber music. Her music combines the sophistication of a modern composer with an approachability that pleases her listeners.
The Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass and Piano (2010) uses the same instrumentation as Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. This allows the composer to highlight the contrabass as “an important element in the overall design…that reaches for that chamber music ideal of equal partners.” It adds a depth to the bass lines that is contrasted by the piano’s punctuation and the violin’s melodic character. Indeed, this is an extraordinary well integrated work, highlighted by the middle movement “The Moody Trout” which transforms a small quote from Schubert’s work into an evocative bluesy fantasy—and a vivacious finale that’s lots of fun.
The earlier (1987) Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello is more modern in its structure and musical idiom. Zwilich contrasts the strings and the piano, with each family’s “material taken up and reinterpreted by the other” and “forms the basis for a dialogue with the other.” It’s a passionate and muscular work with a somber but emotionally intense middle movement and a rapidly potent finale.
The Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet (2008) develops tension from the very get-go by creating dialogue between the Miami String Quartet and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. It has an orchestral sound that is both exciting, and dreamily Romantic. Contrast is provided in the “Quasi una Passacaglia” by repeating memorable material in a Baroque and Romantic, deeply expressive style. “Games” continues the dialogue with a bluesy and playful interplay between the two groups, and “Au revoir” sentimentally recalls the relationship in the previous movements not with sadness but with satisfaction and anticipation to ‘the next time’ they can play together. Their superb performance reflects the fun they must have had in making this CD.
All three of the works on this disc are enjoyable yet sophisticated chamber works that represent the music of one of America’s finest composers.