Steven Stucky

Chamber music


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Lost songs, by paul Griffiths

From the album liner notes

Steven Stucky loved the orchestra, and wrote gloriously, intimately, colorfully, passionately for it – and also abundantly, in scores commissioned by leading symphonies and soloists. The scale of his achievement here alone would be enough for any composer to feel justifiable fulfilment, but Stucky was also a diligent teacher at Cornell, a regular presence on the other side of the country as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s longstanding new-music man, and an artist with yet more to say. In particular, he produced a rich output of chamber music, not least in his later years. Evidently, the genre suited him. As a student, he had played chamber music whenever and wherever there was a chance, his instrument of choice being the viola, as it was for Mozart, for Dvořák, and for Schoenberg. Like them, he knew chamber music not just from inside but from inside the inside.

Moreover, chamber music suited his personality, which was affable, orderly, with a quiet alertness that could flash out in wit. It suited his gift for friendship, for emotional and intellectual generosity, for listening, for conviviality – and, appropriately, it is a small group of his friends that has gathered to make this recording. It also suited his musical inclinations – and here we should hear (as we hear in a different sense in his music) his own voice, introducing the work with which this selection begins:

“Lately I have found myself returning more often to traditional genres I grew up with: a piano quartet in 2005, a piano quintet in 2010, a symphony in 2012, and now in 2013 both a violin sonata and a piano sonata. That doesn’t mean returning to sonata form, of course, or to the minuet, or to the three- or four-movement cycle of the Classic-Romantic era. Still, the magnificent examples bequeathed to us by past composers have to be dealt with in one way or another: either by accepting and adapting some of the musical solutions they suggest, or else by rejecting them in a constructive way, as a springboard to something quite different.

“My head is full of violin sonatas I love, especially by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, but for me the violin sonata to reckon with is the Debussy, one of the most original and compelling works ever written. The Debussy sonata is a work far too sui generis to inspire direct imitation, but it can at least suggest a certain balanced interaction between, on the one hand, a musical narrative that seems improvised, fantastic, and willful, and on the other hand principles of construction that seem almost classical. That is a combination still worth pursuing, even now.”

Typically, without quite saying so, Stucky has made his position clear. Composers can draw on and proceed from their legacy, or they can ricochet in another direction. He will do the former – with, in this case, the Debussy Violin Sonata in mind. (Another of his chamber works to be mentioned in this context is the Sonate en forme de préludes for oboe, horn, and harpsichord, written for Carnegie Hall as one of three new works to substitute for the sonatas Debussy did not live to compose.)

In Stucky’s Violin Sonata, the opening steps are made by the violin, roaming through fifths and minor seconds from its bottom note, G, to that of its next string, D, and on up to A and E, the notes of its top two strings, but raised two octaves. In six slow measures, a mere twenty seconds or so, Stucky has set out his pitch – or, rather, his pitches. This is a sonata that will emerge from the nature of the violin (and, later, of the piano) and that will be, as his note promised, at once tightly logical (all those tuning notes appearing in due order: G – D … A – E) and spontaneous (in where the other steps are placed, where and how the sequence will be closed).

The same goes for the rest of the piece, in its detail and in its overall form. Rising and falling, rising and falling, rising again, the opening statement keeps reconsidering its elemental material and is answered by a chorale from the piano, clangorous and bright – a glorious invention, and (if all those fifths have not already made the point) unabashedly American. The violin re-enters, again sweeping across the registers to settle for a while on a high D that completes a B minor chord (Stucky’s multicolored tonal palette happily accommodates triads). Galloping triplets look forward to the last movement, before the arrival back at the violin’s bottom G prompts a new departure, American in a different way. This is hard to break free of, though both instruments try. However, a beautiful flowing possibility is at last found, to lead toward a varied reprise that conveys the violin once more to its lowest note.

Starting from here comes what Stucky heads “Interlude” and calls in his note “something like a sketch for a slow movement,” though it has more gravity than this risks suggesting. It also invokes another of what Stucky elsewhere described as his “household gods,” Bartók, who remains in evidence through the next movement.

This “Scherzo-Finale” offers another aural treat in its doublings of the instruments, at first in a return of the triplets in something like the rhythm of a gigue, much favored in final movements from Bach onwards. (Such doublings will recur in the next two works here.) Two more kinds of music are soon introduced: four-note patterns, staccato, and arpeggios leading up to reiterations, again in triplets but decisively contained, until they start enlarging themselves. A con fuoco on repeated notes is followed by a contrastingly lyrical section that comes out of the middle movement. Then changes are rung on earlier material, with increasing momentum – a brief return to the lyrical music excepted – to the end.

Of course, if set beside the works of Helmut Lachenmann or Salvatore Sciarrino, to mention two composers Stucky spoke of during this period with interest and evident knowledge, this sonata resonates from within an older world. Yet, in its freshness and adroitness, it insists – with Schoenberg, incidentally – that in stylistic regions that were being opened up a century and more ago, and then being so hastily abandoned, there is still the possibility of finding lost songs.

Bell sounds, and flirtations with popular music, reappear in the altogether more outward and exuberant Piano Quintet that Stucky composed five years later, in 2009-10. The old-style movements of the Piano Quartet (scherzo with trio, no less) have been cleared away for an oscillation between fast music, jumpy and racing, and slow in an A–B–A–B–A pattern, where the fast sections and the slow ones pursue their own courses of development while responding also to whatever has come immediately before. The first fast segment, having nothing to respond to, is a short introduction; this music is then much more fully developed in the second “A” section, where it becomes clear that fast and slow are different facets of the one music.

At almost exactly the halfway point, the speeding music suddenly stops. The piano sends triads splashing into the air at a slightly more relaxed tempo, and the strings react by moving in a different way: ever the professional in his Italian terms, Stucky here uses the unusual marking sbarazzino (jauntily). We may feel something is afoot, and it certainly is, for soon there arrives a passage headed “Glorioso” that could be a homage to Olivier Messiaen, using what that master called the “second mode of limited transpositions,” more regularly known as the octatonic scale. This passage, glorious indeed, seems to affirm and display what has been in waiting from the start, and it is the same music, even more glorious, that Stucky very appropriately brings back to end the work.

Here, certainly, is one of his lost songs, but there is very definitely another in the subject matter of the slow sections, the second of which gathers toward an impassioned climax. The most poignant figure in this slow material is a downward fragment of, not surprisingly, the octatonic scale – a fragment (semitone–tone–semitone) we have heard under other circumstances in the last movement of the Violin Sonata, including right at the end of that composition, which was, of course, to come later.

The black sparkle of the octatonic scale comes out strongly on the resonant piano, and can be heard strongly in Stucky’s Sonata for the instrument, a work he completed in November 2014. Once again, a single movement contains the various abutting strengths of several; and once again, the syncopated vitality and the lyricism of American popular music are part of the clearly, intelligently articulated flow.

Once again, too, the form is A–B–A–B–A, but, in a reverse of the Piano Quintet’s pattern, it is the slow music that opens and closes, and alacrity now is only an intervention, necessary but shortlived. The beginning is almost a grave fantasy on the minor third, and especially on the fall from B flat to G, which the piece keeps in its sights. Perhaps the ensuing fast music could be construed as an attempt to stave off this doleful interval, whose naked return precipitate the big slow section occupying the sonata’s central third. Setting out as a kind of passacaglia – but a corkscrew passacaglia, its chorale-like bass turning at every rotation – the music develops great power against the partly disruptive comments that keep arriving in the high treble, then exchanges its power for light as the chorale moves on and on upward. The fast music breaks back, but again has to give way to the inevitable. At the end, after an insistence on the treble-register B flat that is bound to recall Ravel’s “Le Gibet,” the B flat – G motif is still there.

The brief Chorale provides an adieu. Stucky slipped it under the door of his close friend and Cornell colleague Xak Bjerken – the guiding spirit of this album – with a typically self-deprecating inscription: “a little simple-minded.” Of course, it is nothing of the kind. Marked “sempre p ed intimo,” it has an altogether different tone from that of the mounting, rising chorale in the Piano Sonata, or the radiant chorale of the Violin Sonata, its phrases moving uncertainly and yet with purpose, the rhythm unsteady that takes them through their arrays of colorful chords (with just one root-position triad, placed low, as a sudden warmth). And the ending comes as if more could be said.


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