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March 16, 1999

Modern ComposersModern American Classics -- Vol III. Marga Richter, Spectral Chimes/Enshrouded Hills; Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark. William Thomas McKinley, Concerto Domestica. Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz, conductor. (MMC Recordings, CD #MMC2066) 1998.

American composer Marga Richter (b. 1926) is not afraid of large musical forms. Her output of more than 75 works include ballets, operas, concertos, as well as the long piece receiving its premiere recordings with the current album, Spectral Chimes/Enshrouded Hills, written in 1980. Richter says that while she was writing Spectral Chimes she was reading Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and that her "consciousness was gradually permeated with the image of Tess constantly toiling up and down those misted English hills, seeking something which proved to be always beyond reach. The feelings are reflected in the music.... [Hardy's] references to phantoms and to bells became my spectral chimes, and his distant vistas my enshrouded hills."

Rather than a "misty, impressionistic tone-poem" that one might expect from this description, however, the work is (quoting from the album notes): "a huge, brilliantly-sustained, single-movement span...loosely based on sonata-allegro form and scored for the extraordinary combination of string, woodwind and brass quintets, with orchestra. There are thus fifteen soloists who sometimes play as discrete quintets in a sort of concerto grosso style, sometimes as individuals, and at other times as orchestral players, making possible a wide variety of instrumental textures ranging from chamber-music transparency to dense impasto. The resulting work is a remarkable synthesis of complex scoring, rigorous structural integrity, and deeply-felt emotion that -- like Thomas Hardy's doomed protagonists and desolate landscapes -- encompasses impassioned defiance, granitic strength, evocative mystery, forlorn majesty, and, ultimately, stoic resignation."

Those notes may seem a bit over-the-top, but they fairly capture the mood of the piece. A short and energetic motif that is to be repeated throughout the work is heard at the beginning, than "is quickly set off against a series of skirling figures and a solemn...counter-motive which will also recur many times." A number of themes and motifs and developed in the piece, including a "bizarre, fragmentary waltz-like episode." The intensity of the piece builds continually, with calm moments that offer some respite from the "increasingly violent and obsessive iterations that build, finally, to a powerful, chorale-like apotheosis" near the end, then resolve into a "rustle of soft string trills and tremulandos...punctuated by a final low note on the harp." In contrast to the power and majesty of "Spectral Chimes..." Richter's other work on the present album, "Quantum Quirks..." is described as a "brief [under five minute] comic overture."

Also represented on the album is the prolific American composer William Thomas McKinley (b. 1938). His "Concerto Domestica," from 1991, is so named because it represents the two partners in a marriage, given voice by the somewhat unexpected pairing of solo trumpet and bassoon. The work is written in ten movements suggesting "scenes...from the course of a long and busy day" in the life of a domestic pair, and is as varied and unpredictable as such a scenario suggests. All three works on the album are mature, rich works that richly reward repeated listening.

You can hear "Spectral Chimes/Enshrouded Hills -- Music for Three Orchestral Quintets and Orchestra" by Marga Richter on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, March 18 at 7:00 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

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