East Hampton Star

Surely the issue is whether such a project is done well and, in the case of the Songs Without Words, it certainly is. Wolosoff is continually inventive, mining a wide variety of genres and letting them go before they overstay their welcome.

— Jeremy Marchant, Arkiv Music

WOLOSOFF Songs Without Words • Carpe Diem Qrt • NAXOS 8.559663 (56: 19)


Songs without Words was commissioned from Bruce Wolosoff by the Carpe Diem Quartet. Numbering some 18 short pieces, almost all around the length of an old-fashioned pop single—three minutes—this is an enjoyable, flexible set of little diversions and vignettes. The quartet was specifically looking for a "more vernacular piece" when it made the commission. The choice of Wolosoff was an inspired one, if slightly unlikely, since he had little track record in more populist repertoire. And, if the idea of 18 three-minute songs immediately raises issues in some readers’ minds around dumbing down, it shouldn’t, though they would be in good company, as it apparently concerned the composer himself. However, in the end he must have been convinced by the project. “Imagine my newfound joy at the possibility of writing music that my friends might want to listen to for pleasure,” Wolosoff is quoted on the Naxos Web site. Surely the issue is whether such a project is done well and, in the case of the Songs Without Words, it certainly is. Wolosoff is continually inventive, mining a wide variety of genres and letting them go before they overstay their welcome. Clearly the idea of writing these wordless songs increasingly appealed to the composer, because what started as an initial run of five or six swelled eventually to 18.  The 18 aren’t intended to be performed as a whole. Listening to them in one sitting is slightly like eating a certain sort of meal where you nibble at a lot of enjoyable dishes but feel hungry half an hour later. They clearly work best in smaller groups, perhaps as foils for other works in a varied program. The quartet will be performing some of them with the Thodos dance company in Chicago in February 2011, choreographed by Ann Reinking.

The CD opens with "The River," a gently rocking number that epitomizes Wolosoff’s ability to take an engaging little idea and run a few diverting developments on it. There’s even time for a little climax before the mood of the opening is restored. In the next piece, “Circle Dance,” the idea that these are songs, foremost, albeit without words, could not be clearer. Time and again, for example in "The Letter"and “Young Love,” one finds oneself imagining lyrics that would fit. Elsewhere, one player or another is allotted the vocal line and the others provide an accompaniment, simple enough not to subvert the genre, but never banal. For example, in “Blues for Stravinsky,” Charles Wetherbee’s singing solo line is repeatedly nuanced with delightful little touches—he does a mean portamento—over a chugging accompaniment.

The Carpe Diem brings its formidable technique to bear on these pieces by presenting them openly and with sincerity. Not  once is there any sense of the technique being at odds with the simplicity of the pieces, since it never draws attention to itself for its own sake. Rather, it is deployed in the interests of presenting the music for the greatest enjoyment of the listener. It is interesting to compare Wolosoff’s adoption of vernacular styles as they apply to stringed instruments with that of Korine Fujiwara on the Carpe Diem CD of her music reviewed above. Fujiwara completely has the styles she chooses to deploy under her fingertips. Wolosoff is, I suspect, a pianist. A piece such as "Fire and Ice" or "Blues for Stravinsky" feels pianistic. Of course, nothing unusual there; plenty of string quartets sound as if they were written at the keyboard. In addition, I feel Fujiwara is an intuitive composer, whereas Wolosoff is more calculating, more aware of his antecedents. This is to the advantage of the Songs Without Words, which satisfy in just the same way that a well-crafted song, whether by Robert Schumann or Brian Wilson, does. "Reverence" sounds to me clearly a descendant of the Austro-German tradition in the way the instruments slowly twine around each other like a ghostly minuet.

Due to time pressures, it was not possible to audition the recording via conventional CD. I had to make do with MP3 files downloaded from the Internet and played on my computer. I can’t therefore comment on the sound quality, or the CD booklet. But, even so, the quality of the performances and the invention in the music shone through.

 
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