It is always nice to be able to get a substantial overview of a composer who has been previously unknown to me. This group of four compact discs contains a total of 19 works, largely oriented towards chamber music, but also containing a chamber opera, a song cycle, and several works for solo instrument. Through all these works, Wilenski writes in a heartfelt personal style, which varies in its intensity from piece to piece, but never sounds quite like anyone else. I do hear some influence and elements from composers, especially Berg and Bartók, in various places in these works. The essence of Wilenski’s style might be described as a melodic chromaticism, for want of a better term. Of the composer’s four works in the string quartet medium, the second, a substantial (34 minute) work, is the most traditional, being cast in four movements, and drawing on standard musical forms, such as the sonata form of the first movement. Even if the harmonic language is not exactly that of Bartók, it evokes his power and dynamism, and something of the spirit of the works of the Hungarian master in that medium. The quartet seems tinged with sadness throughout, but also contains an occasional humorous touch, such as the consecutive open strings of the violin in the third movement. The more I heard of this quartet, the more I liked it. Wilenski’s considerable pianistic abilities are on display in a number of the works on theseCDs. The Triptych of 1989 consists of three long and rather dissonant sections, played without pause, growing in complexity and fading out at the conclusion of the work. His Improvviso captures its title through freely rhapsodic figures in alternating sections that begin with a flourish of quickly repeated dyads and triads, and conclude with a mock funeral march. The Nocturno is an example of the composer’s postromantic voice, being full of fairly obscure tonal references that culminate in a calm
C-Minor sonority. Pequeña Musica(little music) explores in its first section rhythmic possibilities of groups of notes repeated with minor variations in pitch and duration. The style of this work is rather austere. The second section is given to lyricism with accompanying arpeggiation, while the third returns to the rhythmic activity of the first. The only negative on this particular track is the less-than-perfectly tuned piano.
The largest-scale piano work among these discs is the 21-minute Second Piano Sonata from
1987, when it was written as a work for two pianos as one of the first works the composer wrote after destroying all of his early music. In 2007, Wilenski revised the sonata for solo piano. Its three movements range from the mechanical first movement to the slow and impressionistic second, and it concludes with a virtuosic final movement, which the composer-pianist performs most adroitly. The style of the work is expressively atonal throughout.
Diversions is scored for three trombones, and is set in four contrasting movements, the chorale-like first movement contrasting with the vigorous, glissando-filled second movement, the whispering third, and the rhythmic finale, full of punctuated chords. The work does not sound too difficult (I had a three-year fling with the trombone in junior high school), and could be brought off by talented students.
La Leyenda del Kakuy (the legend of Kakuy) is based on an Argentinian Indian story. The
Kakuy is a nocturnal bird found in that region, onomatopoetically named for the sound it makes. The seven-movement work here takes us through the story that concerns a brother who resents his sister and tries to kill her by stranding her in the forest, whereupon she is transformed into a bird, and cries out in vain for her departed brother. The sounds of this work are exotic, and demonstrate that Wilenski has his own unique artistic voice. Once you’ve heard this work, filled with twittering and other jungle sounds, you won’t forget it. The three solo pieces seem to be cut more or less from the same cloth as the second quartet. The three-movement Violin Sonata has a lot of wandering chromatic lines, and, like Bartók, Wilenski “fills in” the notes of a chromatic scale in non-sequential fashion. The second movement in particular evokes a Hassidic flavor to my ears, in keeping with the Jewish ethnicity of its composer. The third movement is entitled “Alla Ludwig van,” and respectfully pokes some fun at the finale of Ludwig’s Fourth Symphony. The composer cleverly uses thematic material from each of the other very different movements to tie the work together structurally. This work is fun to listen to, and I’m sure to play as well. The five-minute Hommage to B. B. Béla Bartók) utilizes solo clarinet, and is one of the composer’s oldest extent works, dating from 1976. Homage or not, it is clearly not intended to actually sound like Bartók, given its pointillistic writing, and special effects. I’m sure clarinetists have a name for some of these, but since I’m not a clarinet expert, as is my colleague Richard A. Kaplan, I don’t know what they might be called—one of them resembles a baby wailing. Somewhere in the work there is a quote from the Hungarian master’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, but I didn’t catch it. The last of the three solo pieces is scored for bassoon, which is initially given long flowing lines that yield to a middle section of unbridled rhythmic vivacity. Bassoonists should take note of this work, as it would be a very effective recital piece. Bernardo Verde brings it off superbly.
With Carmen’s Revenge, we have a change of pace for the otherwise mostly instrumental selections in this collection. Wilenski has written four operas, but whether he counts the present work among them I’m not sure. This three-act work requires only just over a half hour to present, and the forces involved comprise only 12 performers, including soloists, conductor, chorus, and instrumentalists. I suppose one should grant the work at least “chamber opera” status, as it is longer than Milhaud’s three Opéras-Minutes combined. The composer describes this piece as his projection of the original character into a modern or imaginary society, and he has tried to give her a true Spanish identity (even down to her pronunciation of certain French texts). The very brief overture begins with several immediately recognizable quotes from the Bizet masterpiece, but thereafter, Wilenski’s music bears scant resemblance to that of Bizet, save for the isolated quote. I doubt that it’s necessary to rehearse in any detail the slender storyline of the work. Essentially, it involves Carmen, who has aged (albeit not emotionally: She is still the 19th-century seductress that she was in Bizet), and her interactions with the impotent Don Juan, the homosexual Valentino, and the incestuous Oedipus.
These drive her to her therapist, Doctor Drum, favored pupil of the redoubtable Sigmund Freud. It seems that her fate with these “three idiots” is worse than the death that she experienced at the end of the original opera (I trust this statement isn’t a “spoiler” for the one or two readers of this review who do not know the plot of Carmen).
The style of the music is rather expressionistic—some of it sounds almost Schoenbergian. It may be a tougher nut to crack for some auditors than most of the other pieces under review.
The biggest drawback to the recording of this work is the vocal production of Maria Rosa
López, who portrays Carmen. López is regrettably possessed of a significant wobble and questionable pitch accuracy (with a wobble this pronounced, the exact pitches she’s singing are open to debate in any case). Baritone César Puente is a notch or two better, but still not exactly world class. His part is much less prominent in any case. Because of the singing, this is the one work of the 19 under review that I’m hesitant to recommend. I would like to hear the work with first-rate singers before making such a judgment.
The other vocal work in this collection is the Three Poems of Norah Lange, and they reflect contrasting moods of bucolic melancholy. The first song, “Tu Nombre,” features a plaintive melodic line over a simple linear accompaniment in the piano. “Quererte asi” is more declamatory, with irregular rhythmic activity in recitative style. The third poem, “Incertidumbre,” is even more declamatory and dramatic, building up to a significant climax. Soprano Marisa Martins has a pleasant light voice that is at times pleading, but also up to the dramatic claims placed upon it by Wilenski’s setting of the poetry.
The composer describes his Three Movements for flute and piano as a “light piece,” but it nevertheless draws from complex tonal resources in its “Praeludium,” “Siciliano,” and “Scherzo,” the three movements being connected by solo flute cadenzas. The
Romances for clarinet and piano was based upon an earlier work for a larger ensemble, and utilizes similar sonorities as does Three Movements, but reflects a more generally improvisatory nature. Its nine short sections evoke a moody atmosphere with substantial contrasts between one section and the next. Essentially, it inhabits the world of expressionism.
Coming to Introducción y Sardana for woodwind quintet, the first work on the Columna
Música disc, we find Wilenski engaging in a more readily accessible style, and yet one that has his musical fingerprints throughout, including the occasional harmonically complex divagations from the piece’s essential tonality that permeate other of his works. The work is the composer’s personal salute to Catalonia, where he has made his permanent home in its capital, Barcelona. Also akin to other of his works, Wilenski has inserted a sly allusion to the theme from the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony. I heard it in my audition of the piece before I had read the notes to find out that it was deliberate. As in all of the other quotes mentioned in the above pieces, Wilenski is never making fun of the pieces he quotes or alludes to. Rather, his ribbing always comes across as respectful and good-natured. The 10-minute Woodwind Quintet is a delight from beginning to end, and should be investigated by ensembles looking for new literature as a good alternative to Ibert’subiquitous
Trois pièces brèves. Most of the remaining works on the Columna Música disc are for solo instrument. The solo piano works have been discussed above, so we are left with the
Movimiento y Variación, a very freely tonal improvisatory discourse that exploits the flute in all of its registers, employing a lot of leaps from one to the other. The
Cantilena for solo oboe is a short, romantic piece in ternary form.
I know some readers will think I’ve lost it, but the piece is reminiscent of some of the music in a particular episode of the original Mission Impossible television series (of which I own all seven seasons,being a devotee), in which the MI team has to investigate a case in a house that was thought to be haunted by the ghost of a deceased oboist. Well, never mind that, except I think that other listeners will also hear something haunting in this work. The Columna disc closes with the Vaudeville for oboe, English horn, and bassoon, a little suite in four concise movements. The title is drawn from the burlesque character of the final movement of the piece. All in all, these four discs offer many rewards, with good to outstanding performances by the forces involved (with the minor exception of the singers in
Carmen’s Revenge). This is a composer worth exploring and savoring. If you want to start with one or two of the discs, I’d begin with the Navona CD containing the utterly distinctive and gripping La Leyenda del Kakuy, followed closely by the Columna disc containing the delightful woodwind quintet and trio. Note that the Navona discs all contain interactive material, including study scores and additional program notes. Two thumbs up, all around.
David DeBoor Canfield

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