At the end of this month (and currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com), Cedille will release a new recording featuring one of their most adventurous artists, the violinist Jennifer Koh. The title of the album is Two x Four. The first number refers to the fact that, on all of the tracks, Koh is performing with her mentor, Jaime Laredo, known for his trio with pianist Joseph Kalichstein and cellist (and wife) Sharon Robinson. (In addition, both Laredo and Robinson are now members of the string faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music.) The “Four” in the title is the number of compositions performed on the album.
For all four of those pieces, Koh and Laredo perform as soloists with the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble, a resident chamber orchestra at the Curtis Institute of Music. The conductor is Vinay Parameswaran. As might be guessed from its name, the ensemble’s repertoire covers the 20th and 21st centuries. However, Two x Four seems to have been conceived as a “response” to the “call” of what is probably the best known concerto for two violins, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1043 in D minor. Thus, the album begins with this “vestige” from the eighteenth century and then hurtles the listener into three compositions from the recent past.
Of the remaining three pieces, only one is from the twentieth century, “Echorus,” which Philip Glass composed in 1995 to be played by Edna Mitchell and Yehudi Menuhin. This makes Glass sort of the “grand old man” of the album, rubbing one shoulder with Bach (not inappropriately, since the basic structure of “Echorus” is a chaconne) and the other with two 21st-century composers, Anna Clyne and David Ludwig. Both of these pieces were composed for performance by Koh and Laredo. In reading some of the press accounts of these works, I found that both compositions were referred to as “double concertos,” reinforcing the proposition that this music may be taken as a “response” to the “call” of Bach.
If so, then the response, indeed, comes from a great distance. It is not hard to imagine BWV 1043 having emerged from Bach’s jamming with his Collegium Musicum buddies at the Café Zimmermann near the main market square in Leipzig. However, there is little sense of jamming in Clyne’s 2012 “Prince of Clouds;” nor is it clear whether or not Clyne was inspired by Charles Baudelaire calling the albatross a “prince of clouds” in his Fleurs du mal (flowers of evil). Nevertheless, the music shares the calculated moodiness of Baudelaire’s poetry and the somewhat edgy textures that emerge through the interplay of the two soloists with the string ensemble.
Ludwig’s composition, also composed in 2012, is entitled Seasons Lost. While it has been called a concerto and might seem to suggest Antonio Vivaldi’s cycle of four concertos, one for each of the seasons of the year, it is better considered as an integrated suite in four movements, each of which is named for one of the seasons. The title refers to how global climate change has undermined the conditions that distinguish those seasons, suggesting that the very identify of each of the seasons has now been lost. There is no question that this makes for a powerful political statement. Whether or not Ludwig’s music enhances the impact of that statement, however, is debatable, even in the sensitive interpretation of that music on this recording.
I thus found it interesting that “Echorus” should stand as a refuge of serenity, intervening between the intensity-without-referent of “Prince of Clouds” and the efforts of Seasons Lost to contribute to the debate over climate change. Perhaps this has to do with Glass being more sympathetic to Bach’s practices of jamming, through which compositions such as his concertos would emerge, even if “Echorus” shows no more evidence of jamming than “Prince of Clouds” did. Nevertheless, Glass has always been a composer for whom making music involves engagement through playing instruments before committing to putting marks on paper. In is unclear whether either Clyne or Ludwig shares that worldview. However, if may be the worldview of 21st-century music making, in which case Two x Four may tell us a lot about the context in which composers like Clyne and Ludwig do their work.