Emily Davis (violin), English String Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Steven R. Gerber
Sinfoniettas – No. 1 (1991, arr. Hagen); No. 2 (2000). String Sinfoniasa – No. 1 (1995); No. 2 (2011, all arr. Williams). Two Lyric Pieces (2005)ab
Nimbus Alliance NI6423 [73’07”]
Producer Phil Rowlands
Engineer Tim Burton
Recorded 7-8 October 2020, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
The English Symphony Orchestra returns with music by American composer Steven R. Gerber (1948-2015). Little known in the UK, it enjoyed wide exposure in the Russia of the immediate post-Soviet era and could well find a new audience through such pieces as those featured here.
What’s the music like?
In common with many composers of his generation, Gerber’s output charts a trajectory from serialism to a direct re-engagement with tonality, but his success in aligning these nominally opposing aesthetics confirms a creative insight matched by (surprisingly?) few of his peers. That four out of the five pieces are arrangements from chamber works should not imply any lack of versatility on the composer’s part; rather, these are all pieces more likely to reach a wider listenership through being reimagined for larger though still relatively modest forces.
This is evident not least in the case of the two Sinfoniettas. The First is an arrangement of the Piano Quintet by Daron Hagen (pupil of David Diamond and Ned Rorem, and a composer of numerous works for the stage) whose five movements evolve from the tensile incisiveness of its preludial first movement, via the capricious then scurrying manner of the Intermezzo and Scherzo that ensue, to a finale whose accrued emotional plangency finds its apogee in a coda whose headlong impetus renders what went before from an appreciably different perspective.
The other arrangements were all undertaken by Adrian Williams, himself a notable composer whose large-scale Symphony the ESO has recently recorded for future release. Derived from Gerber’s Fourth Quartet, the First String Sinfonia is most arresting for the consistent intensity of its central movements – a Lento then a Maestoso that might have functioned as finale had not the composer opted, rightly as it turns out, to let the emotion subside over the course of a brief yet affecting Postlude – one that balances the gentle opening Moderato to potent effect. As derived from Gerber’s Sixth Quartet, the Second String Sinfonia emerges as a much more equivocal work – the angular and ambivalent Allegro followed by the menacing Intermezzo, then a final Theme and Variations which ultimately winds down towards an uncertain repose.
A more elaborate, indeed methodical take on the Variations format is pursued by the second and final movement of Gerber’s Fifth Quartet, here arranged as the Second Sinfonietta which again makes use of fuller instrumentation and exudes more charged expression. Not least the opening Fantasy, whose determined contrasts of mood make for a disjunct overall trajectory such as is countered, though not wholly resolved, through the steady and always inevitable build-up of its finale towards a forceful while by no means decisive or clinching apotheosis.
Does it all work?
Yes. This is engaging music which, if it tends to an unrelieved earnestness, cannot be faulted for emotional sincerity. It was astute programming to include Two Lyric Pieces for violin and strings, the only item in its original guise, whose inward soulfulness finds Gerber at his most approachable – not least when Emily Davis renders the solo part with such fluency and poise.
Is it recommended?
Indeed, directed by Kenneth Woods with unfailing conviction in sound of real clarity. Those who are coming afresh to Gerber should certainly respond positively to what is heard here.
Listen and Buy
You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Nimbus website. For more information on Steven R. Gerber, click here. For more on Daron Hagen, click here – and click on the names for more on Adrian Williams, Emily Davis, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. –