Sinfoniettas Nos 1 & 2; Lyric Pieces*†; String Sinfonias Nos 1 & 2†
*Emily Davis (violin); †English String Orchestra; English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
Nimbus NI 6423 73:07 mins
The American composer Steven R Gerber died of cancer in 2015, aged 66, leaving behind a Trust able to promote his music and support other sympathetic ventures. Hence this album: one of the results of a two-year partnership with the English Symphony Orchestra and their American conductor, Kenneth Woods. Like many composers of his generation, Gerber initially dedicated himself to total serialism, only to later embrace tonality, expressive dissonance and a frowning dark mood often recalling 20th century Russians. All that is exactly Woods’s cup of tea, though the recording quality doesn’t work in the music’s favour; likewise some of the Trust’s commissioned arrangements of works originally written for much smaller forces.
Only the Lyric Pieces, in fact, are heard in their original guise: these make delightful listening, partly thanks to Emily Davis’s lively and characterful violin. String Sinfonia No. 2, arranged by Adrian Williams from Gerber’s String Quartet No. 6 (a memorial for his late wife), appeals through its lyric and rhythmic intensity, and the composer’s intermittent skill in exploiting the variation form. Williams is far less successful turning that quartet’s predecessor into Sinfonietta No. 2, burdened with clogging, fussy instrumentation of often unwieldy material. The ears flinch as well at the awkward mish-mash of Sinfonietta No. 1, Daron Hagen’s piano-free conversion of Gerber’s Piano Quintet.
Throughout, the performances are of a high level; not the case with some of the music, and certainly not with the recording, seemingly captured at a leisure centre’s swimming pool.