Shulamit Ran: String Quartet No. 3 ‘Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory’; Jennifer Higdon: Voices; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet*
*Otis Murphy (saxophone); Pacifica Quartet
Cédille CDR 90000 196 57:10 mins
Compared with most other musical instruments, the saxophone is a relative whippersnapper at 170-odd years old, and its repertoire is still in development. Although some concertante works have enjoyed a recent resurgence (Jess Gillam’s performance of Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche at 2018’s Last Night was the first time that piece had featured in the Proms), contemporary saxophonic chamber music is relatively rare.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet (2007) is a superb addition to the slim repertoire, masterfully executed here by the Pacifica Quartet and Otis Murphy, professor of saxophone at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where the string players are artists in residence. The three-movement work begins by blending the string and sax timbres, before the parts develop independence; the saxophone’s gentle cantabile solos culminate in a thrilling virtuosic display.
Zwilich was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music (1983) and her work is widely recorded – particularly in ‘women composers’ collections. Contemporary Voices is not marketed as such; instead it focuses on another aspect that binds its composers together – they are all Pulitzer Prize winners. Shulamit Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3 (2012-13) – is a tribute to Felix Nussbaum
(1904-44), a German-Jewish painter who was murdered in the Holocaust. It was written for the Pacifica and is recorded here for the first time. Its dark, elegiac poignancy is offset by Jennifer Higdon’s itchy, unpredictable Voices (1993), which moves from frenetic, fast-moving melodies to melancholia. Throughout, the Pacifica’s ensemble playing is of the highest standard.