Higdon: Piano Trio, Voices, Impressions

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HIGDON Piano Trio. 1 Voices. 2 Impressions 3 • Anne Akiko Meyers (vn); 1 Alisa Wellerstein (vc); 1 Adam Neiman (pn); 1 Nicolas Kitchen (vn); 2 Melissa Kleinhart (vn); 2 Hsin-Yun Huang (va); 2 Wilhelmina Smith (vc); 2 Cypress Str Qrt 3 • NAXOS 8.559298 (57:42) Live: Vail 2003 1

Reviewer Jerry Dubins recently extolled the high performance standards of contemporary string-quartet-playing. It seems the composition of string quartets may be on a similar high. I was greatly impressed with a quartet by the young Swiss composer Fabian Müller (see my last Want List); from an older generation, John Harbison continues to produce vital works in the genre, and here, from a generation in between, we have a lovely quartet by Jennifer Higdon ( Impressions , composed in 2003). Deliberately intended to evoke the French Impressionists, both in music and painting— hence the title—it is a substantial work in four movements, modeled on the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel. As is often the case with Higdon, texture and color are the overriding features, yet she maintains an instinctive feeling for musical progression; the logic of inspiration, you might call it.

Higdon is a leading light among those American composers who are now settling into their prime. Her orchestral writing is brilliant: I would commend anyone even remotely interested in modern music to get hold of her Concerto for Orchestra and City Scape , recorded on Telarc by Robert Spano and the Atlanta SO. The same generous outpouring of ideas and playful shifting of instrumental textures inform these chamber works, and the smaller forces serve to accentuate her contrapuntal ingenuity.

The Piano Trio, also from 2003, consists of two movements, subtitled “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red.” While these descriptive titles convey the overall flavor of the pieces, they don’t tell the whole story. The first movement opens with a gentle, hymn-like theme in the piano, but once the other instruments join in, the piece surges forward and the initial “pale yellow” brightens conspicuously. The movement concludes with a return to the quiet opening mood. “Fiery Red” is an exciting moto perpetuo , requiring strength and precision from all three instrumentalists (which it certainly receives here). This movement also surges—at a faster pace—and even in its moments of respite it retains a sense of momentum: the music’s heart rate never drops.

Higdon’s Trio was recorded live at its premiere performance at the 2003 Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. It gets such an exciting performance from the star violinist and her equally talented partners that I was disappointed to find audience applause had not been retained (especially as the festival is called Bravo!).

Voices , a three-movement work from a decade earlier, also for string quartet, shows the composer developing her language. I hear a less personal, all-purpose contemporary music style at work here, yet the composer’s personality peeps through, and her irresistible exuberance is already in evidence. One memorable passage makes beguiling use of pizzicato—a device that does not appear in the Impressions quartet, strangely enough.

Sound quality of these recordings is fine throughout, despite their differing provenances. The performances are full of zest and commitment, all contributing to an issue of real interest.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Product Description:

  • Release Date: December 12, 2006

  • Catalog Number: 8559298

  • UPC: 636943929827

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: Contemporary

  • Composer: Jennifer Higdon

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Cypress String Quartet

  • Performer: Adam Neiman, Alisa Weilerstein, Anne Akiko Meyers, Huang Hsin-Yun, Melissa Kleinbart, Nicholas Kitchen, Wilhelmina Smith


  1. Piano Trio

    Composer: Jennifer Higdon

    Performer: Anne Akiko Meyers (Violin), Alisa Weilerstein (Cello), Adam Neiman (Piano)

  2. Voices

    Composer: Jennifer Higdon

    Performer: Nicholas Kitchen (Violin), Melissa Kleinbart (Violin), Huang Hsin-Yun (Viola), lhelmina Smith (Cello)

  3. Impressions

    Composer: Jennifer Higdon

    Ensemble: Cypress String Quartet