Apollo Chamber Players
Van-Anh Vo, dan bau.
Matthew Carrington, viola.
WindSync, members of KINETIC and Loop38/Jerry Hou
Navona Records 6038
Total Time: 59:27
Apollo Chamber Players returns with this new collection of four contemporary works for chamber ensemble. Their programs tend to incorporate music from a variety of cultural traditions with a focus this time on Asian culture for the second part of this full program. Three of the works are from their 20x2020 series.
First up is a new quartet by Leo Brouwer. Written as part of the Apollo Group’s 20x2020 commission series (the fifteenth commission), his String Quartet No. 6 (2018) (Nostalgia de las Montanas) is admittedly a more abstract integration of the composer’s references to Brazilian music and landscapes. The “Introduction” presents a rather dizzying array of motives and intense harmonies that break out into longer thematic statements. The rhythms here have their roots in Afro-Cuban music but the asymmetrical patterns now are a tighter, intricate component in an almost Bartokian frenzy as we move into the “Preambulo” section. Samba and jongo gestures are also embedded in the music which is balanced by ideas that appear in the central movement and the final “Sonata” movement. Of Brouwer’s output, this quartet feels more intimate, and personal, but also more abstract and cerebral than some of his more familiar earlier pieces. It is the forward motion and rhythmic vitality though that really makes this an intriguing opening work for the album.
Chris Walczak’s Four Dreams (2016) is a three movement string quartet that explores the Australian Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime. Walczak uses aspects of the overtone series to frame each movement starting from a fundamental tone that then expands outward into the evocative music for each “dream”. Each movement undergoes interesting tonal transformation as it grows into often intensely rhythmical spurts of sound. There are some really gorgeous lyrical lines that provide a nice contrast to the more visceral rhythmic attacks that scurry about the music. The interaction between the voices is also something to pay additional attention to as motives are tossed about to allow each a unique perspective on the material. What is most striking is the unity of tone created by each of the players here. As ideas are handed off from one instrument to the next, there is an excellent matching of tone quality and attack that adds to the excitement and committed performance quality.
The last two works on the album work to expand our concepts of the quartet. First is a piece by Vietnamese compose Vu Nhat Tan, one of two works that also feature performer Van-Anh Vo on the dan bau who further collaborated on the composition of this piece. This is a traditional Vietnamese string instrument that is essentially a monochord zither. It certainly adds a fascinating new color to the texture of the traditional string quartet. In the 18-minute work May (Cloud) (2018), the city of Hanoi is evoked through a series of more traditional-sounding melodies set against more astringent sounds and harmonies. The music is a melding of two types of Vietnamese musical traditions making for a rather fascinating journey that blends Asian and Western musical aesthetics stretching our musical capacity.
Finally, the album closes with a larger-scale chamber piece, Within Earth, Wood Grows (2010). Alexandra Du Bois’ work is an apt pairing as it also explores aspects of the I-Ching and was commissioned for the 1000th anniversary of Hanoi’s founding. The year also marked the 15th anniversary of US and Vietnam’s partnership and this is reflected in the way Du Bois balances the traditional sounds of Vietnamese melodies and instruments with the more traditional Western ones. Instruments are paired to create rather unique colors that are blended to provide different textures that move from lower ranges to higher ones. This lends to music a sense of upward reach and growing beauty.
Apollo Chamber Players continues to impress with their innovative programming but even more so by their technical abilities. Most noticeable here is a real ensemble “voice” that allows for excellent interaction matched across the four players in truly amazing ways. There is a great sense of excitement and energy that comes across in these performances as well making this one of Navona’s stellar quartet releases.