Mixed results on a disc of contemporary American chamber music
Jennifer Higdon is one of America’s most respected and widely performed contemporary composers, so the opportunity that this new disc offers to explore some of her early chamber music – all in world-premiere recordings – is a welcome one. The earliest, her 1988 String Trio written while she was a student at the Curtis Institute, is a restless, searching piece, but the threesome from the Serafin Quartet conveys its drama and sometimes almost orchestral-sounding textures with passion and elegance. There’s a sure and easy sense of ensemble, even if the players seem disinclined to put much variation into their rich, warm, vibrato-heavy tone. Elsewhere, though, things are a bit more workaday. The full foursome gives a creditable but hardly sparkling performance of Higdon’s Sky Quartet (1997), four movements inspired by the immensity of the mid-Western heavens. It’s vigorous and energetic, but slightly lacking in light and shade – that thick sound again, not helped here by the disc’s very close recording. Violist Molly Carr steps out from the group for a persuasive if understated account of Higdon’s 1990 Viola Sonata, and the rustic quartet arrangement of Amazing Grace is beautifully phrased and well paced. The disc’s highlight, though, is bassoonist Eric Stomberg’s remarkably characterful traversal of Higdon’s Dark Wood – witty, volatile and arresting.