Jennifer Higdon: Early Chamber Works

When I put on the new album of Jennifer Higdon’s early chamber works, I was excited.  These pieces hadn’t been recorded yet, and I was curious to hear some of the venerated Higdon’s humbler, less-polished beginnings.  Reading that Serafin String Quartet had an ongoing collaboration with Higdon meant to me that I was going to hear authoritative interpretations and some really great performances.

Amazing Grace was a really shaky start.  The quartet played this short arrangement/composition of the tune really well and the engineering was superb and clean, it’s just that I couldn’t get into it.  The piece sounded like a really great grad student piece.  I know it’s an arrangement from a choir piece, and I could see audiences really liking it and its accessibility, but it just didn’t do it for me.  Maybe I’ve been spoiled by listening to Ben Johnston’s String Quartet #4 too much- but I feel like with the grounding of the tune, you could do a lot more.  I feared that maybe the pieces on this album were unrecorded for a reason.

Sky Quartet should have started this album. After this review, this will most likely be the piece on this album I keep listening to.  There’s so much more going on, and it’s a really engaging piece.  There are really interesting cadences and some great string-writing.  The third movement, Fury, stood out to me as sounding amazing and wild.  Higdon was clearly studying Bartok’s quartets, and you can’t blame her for it, but she manages to get out of his harmonic shadow and into her own place.  I was hoping for a few more extended techniques here and there, but I guess it wasn’t her scene when she wrote it.

Sonata for Viola and Piano was very well-done.  This is one of the earliest pieces on the album, but it doesn’t come off that way.  There’s a point of arrival in the first movement where the viola and piano trade roles, with the piano playing the viola’s original opening melody, that’s especially compelling.  The piece stays away from just low shredding on the viola, which I appreciated as well.

Dark Wood, a quartet for the unusual quartet of violin, cello, bassoon, and piano was very successful.  I especially liked the color the violin contributed, even though the piece is a bassoon-feature.  The pointillistic rhythm is invigorating, and there’s nothing else like it on the album.  You can hear the parallels between this piece and her more-prominent-and-recent Zaka written for eighth blackbird’s instrumentation.

String Trio was interesting.  Higdon’s album note where she expressed reservations about writing this piece because of its limited instrumentation were very informative and humanizing for me as a listener, and you could almost hear her wrestling with herself in this piece.  The last cadence is weird and questioning, a kind of touch that I wish hadn’t faded out in her more recent works.




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