Chamber Music of Richard Wernick on Bridge

UnknownRichard Wernick: Sextet; Concerto for Cello and Ten Players; Piano Trio No. 1. Bridge Records 9480. Here are three masterfully crafted and powerfully expressive works from an exceptionally underappreciated American composer. (I say “exceptionally” because, as the late Steve Stucky once said to me, “we’re all underappreciated!”) Richly contrapuntal, the music is in a dissonant post-tonal idiom, finding coherence in its focussed use of striking motifs and economical harmonic vocabulary. The pitch language is nicely balanced between consistency and variety. When I was in the grad program at Penn, Wernick used to exhort my fellow students and I to “make your own tonality!” He does so in his own music and succeeds brilliantly.

The sextet is scored for strings and piano – a piano quintet plus bass. The addition of the bass gives a quasi-orchestral weight to the vigorous passages here. But Wernick can also deploy his forces in a beguilingly delicate, Webernesque texture, as in the work’s opening Arioso. The Chamber Concerto is the earliest piece on the album. I am taken aback to realize I was at the premiere of this piece some 37 years ago, with the 21st (then 20th!) Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall, with Barbara Haffner as the soloist, as she is on this recording. I find this earlier piece to be more expressionist in style, more rhapsodic in shape than the later music on the disc (the Trio is from 1994; the Sextet from 2003.) There is a somewhat neo-classical character to the later music, though Wernick’s idiom is very different from that of, for example, the music of Stravinsky that is normally associated with that term. I remember especially admiring at the premiere – and I continue to admire now – the second movement of the concerto, one of Wernick’s grandest conceptions, a sixteen-minute passacaglia that very gradually builds and builds in density and power. The terse and animated outer movements of the Piano Trio contrast nicely with the contemplative middle movement, centered around a still point of repeated piano harmonics. It’s an all-star group playing the Trio, with Gregory Fulkerson, violin; Barbara Haffner, cello; and Lambert Orkis, piano; the players for the concerto and the Sextet are from the Chicago area, including members of the Lyric Opera’s orchestra, and are no less fine. Robert Trevino conducts the concerto.

Here’s the opening of the Sextet:

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