AUERBACH: Trio for violin, cello, and piano (1992/1996). GARROP: Seven (1997-98). HIGDON: Piano Trio (2003). SCHWENDINGER: C'e la Luna Questa Sera? (1998/2006). THOMAS: Moon Jig (2005). TOWER: Trio Cavany (2007).
Lincoln Trio.
Çedille CDR 90000 126 TT: 67:20.

Mixed-bag contemporary, ranging from the powerful to the nothing much. Let me kvetch a little. It doesn't say much for us that we still have a category called Women Composers. Of the three high-profile composers on this list, only one of them probably has escaped that label. In an ideal world, the best of these writers need no special pleading. Unfortunately, we don't live in one. Classical-music resources are scarce, even more so for contemporary composers, which most composing women are. Even so, I don't see why a composer like Glass gets more of those resources than Tower.

I first encountered the music of Lera Auerbach when she was a teenage piano and composing virtuoso. She is also a poet and playwright -- a creative polymath. Her piano trio, formally the most conservative on the program, calls to mind Shostakovich, not so much in idiom, but in its bleakness. She began it at 17, a Soviet citizen in the United States, who had just made up her mind to defect and who thus never expected to see her family again. One understands the atmosphere.

I had previously written of Auerbach that, while a fine composer, she seemed to lack individuality -- that her music owed too much to others -- but I now think I made a mistake. The "Russianness" of her music threw me. She shares a certain psychological and emotional neighborhood. However, she no more rips off Shostakovich than Mozart apes Haydn.

Three movements make up the piano trio: Prelude, Andante, and Presto. The spiky Prelude proceeds mostly in two-part counterpoint. It's unusual in that there's very little imitation (that is, the same ideas appearing in different voices). Rather, the lines tend to go their independent, sometimes wayward, ways. The Andante is the heart of the piece. Slow and melancholy, it hardly moves at first, emotionally numb. At first, the finale races like a toccata, with lots of stamps off the beat. A middle section, marked "still and dead," features glassy string tones and ideas from the previous two movements. It becomes a contrapuntal swirl as it revs up again to a rousing, breakneck, fortissimo ending.

The Lincoln Trio has recorded a lot of Chicago-area composer Stacy Garrop, a name hitherto unknown to me. Consequently, I know only this one work, Seven. Garrop talks about the origins of the piece, a discussion, frankly, she probably should have kept to herself, but fortunately it doesn't affect one's perception of the music. In this work (seven movements played without pause), Garrop interests herself in unusual sounds -- which to me have their origins in electronic music, despite their realization by purely acoustical means. The strings play harmonics, glissandi, portamenti, on the bridge, and with the wood of the bow, and the pianist gets to rummage under the piano lid. Yet all these effects occur within the context of traditional phrasing. After a slow, dark opening, the music suddenly erupts into a wild quasi-Middle Eastern dance, à la Bernstein. It then becomes increasingly more brutal and dissonant, reaching a free-for-all climax around the midpoint. It dissolves into the buzzing of angry wasps and a return to the mood of the opening. Here, however, darkness gives way to radiance and serenity. The sounds could accompany a light rain. The piece ends with a ghostly procession. One outstanding element in the work is the strong sense of musical narrative, as opposed to program. The composer does claim a program of sorts, but it's so abstract as to mean very little to a listener. It has a "program" in the same way that Tchaikovsky's Fifth does. The composer works from specific sources of extra-musical inspiration, but within a musical, rather than a literary structure. A very effective work.

Of all the composers here, Jennifer Higdon has most obviously broken out of the Women Composers' Ghetto. Her music often has the sound of an instant classic, like Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra or Britten's War Requiem -- absolutely beyond the particulars of period. I've always wondered what it would have been like to attend the premiere of the Bartók or perhaps the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms. Did the audience sense anything extraordinary? That's how I feel after a first hearing of many Higdon scores, including this one.

However, I must still harbor some misgivings about her work, because I took one look at the titles of this two-movement trio -- "Pale Yellow" and "Fiery Red" -- and began to worry. Too often, composers with a pictorial bent produce music that usually twinkles and shimmers or glowers and passes gas but goes absolutely nowhere. Higdon reports that music makes her see colors -- thus the titles. However, not everybody has synaesthesia, and not all synaesthesiacs make the same music-color connections. Thankfully, Higdon realizes that music occurs over time as well as in space and fashions solid musical arguments.

From the first rapturous, suspended measures of "Pale Yellow," Higdon, like Stravinsky and Copland, gives us the impression that she's put each note in its perfect place. The harmonies are beautiful and absolutely unpredictable. From suspension, the piece subtly picks up more and more movement, essentially the rhetorical structure of the piece. "Fiery Red," for me, lives up to its name, erupting in asynchronous ostinatos, some in imitation. The general effect is that of inexorable, breakneck thrust which veers rhythmically but never stops. It's as if time hiccups. The music rarely lets up as it races to an exhilarating conclusion. Again, it's the sound of a classic.

I wish I could say the same for the next two works. Laura Elise Schwendinger's C'e la Luna Questa Sera? and Augusta Read Thomas's Moon Jig. Schwendinger's score sounds like what I used to hear in the Seventies from the academy. It's very well-crafted, but it fails to move me beyond that. It just seems to lie there like a lox. I also don't hear anything particularly individual in it.

Anonymity isn't Augusta Read Thomas's problem. Moon Jig had no difficulty keeping my interest, although it ultimately didn't convince me as an aesthetic whole. Thomas defines jig much more widely than I'm used to: "a lively dance with leaping movements." OK. It lurches about like a Thelonius Monk piano solo, fascinating, capricious, and full of jolts. I have no idea what it adds up to, but I appreciate its eccentricity.

Joan Tower has created an estimable body of work over the years. I've known and admired her music since the Seventies. For some reason, however, she has never been able to break out of the Woman Composer straitjacket. It annoys me, because I don't think of her gender, but of the power of her work. I do prefer her chamber music, some of the finest since World War II, to her orchestral scores. Occasionally, she succumbs to the Pictorial Fallacy of music, but when she's in her right mind, she takes you by the scruff of the neck and hauls you along.

The Trio Cavany owes its title to the states of the three musical organizations which commissioned it: California, Virginia, and New York. Despite the whimsy of the title, the score itself is in deep earnest. I sense that Tower wants to compete directly in the chamber Big Leagues: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók. Amazing to say it, but she succeeds. In one movement, the trio falls into three large sections: a prelude and allegro, slow movement, and fast finale. Tower binds them all with a three-note motif -- half-step down, minor third up, the "destiny" motif in Wagner's Ring. Tower's prodigious ability to vary the basic idea binds the work over long spans, but such pattern manipulation means less than the drama of the work, a compelling conversation among the three instruments. Tower lays out every one of the seven instrumental combinations derivable from a piano trio (my favorite structural aspect of the score), although she sees its spine as solos merging into duos and tutti and dropping back to solos again. I have no idea how she not only keeps interest, but intensity over the nearly twenty minutes of music, but if I knew, I could probably have written something just as wonderful.

The Lincoln Trio plays the bejabbers out of these pieces. It hasn't the suave tone of, say, the Beaux Arts Trio, but it brings plenty of intellectual and emotional engagement and vigor. They show the quality of the more successful pieces -- the Auerbach, the Garrop, the Higdon, and the Tower -- and they keep your interest in the Read. None of this music is all that far out. Almost every piece has strong ties to traditional music, and almost every piece pays off emotionally. From the standpoint of repertoire and performance, this disc should appeal to even the mildly adventurous.

S.G.S. (December 2011)