Scott Pender: 88+12
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Pender: 88 + 12 (Music for Piano & Strings)
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With a distinctly contemporary compositional signature that draws on minimalism and popular music of the late 20th century, and also recalls the 19th-century Romantic tradition, composer and pianist Scott Pender explores the expressive natures of four instruments - piano, violin, viola, and cello - on his debut solo release on Navona Records, 88 + 12.
Pender presents three piano and string duos: Rhapsody, Elegy, and Finale for Violin and Piano is a study in contrasting mood and texture, featuring virtuosic writing for the violin, while the deeply lyrical Sonata for Cello and Piano is a work of sweeping dramatic gesture. Sonata for Viola and Piano, subtitled ""From Old Notebooks,"" uses material that Pender sketched while living in London during the mid-1980s to create a work of rhythmic pulse and intensity. The string trio Veil of Ignorance, which takes its title from the writing of the 20th-century philosopher John Rawls, provides three differing approaches to the same thematic material.
Scott Pender holds degrees from Georgetown University and the Peabody Conservatory and received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in the United Kingdom with English composer Gavin Bryars. He has been commissioned by numerous groups including the North Georgia Chamber Symphony, the Powell Quartet, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the Annapolis Brass Quintet as well as the late virtuoso pianist Yvar Mikhashoff.
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Many listeners shy away from contemporary music probably feeling that it bristles with difficulty. Pender's music, however, shows an immediacy and a strong emotional appeal. The music is romantic and expressive and frequently heart-tugging. Each of these four works use a great deal of variation and repetition between movements and in the themes. The works tend to be intense through changes in texture, (from light thin lines to the small ensembles producing a large multi-layered sound) and rhythm. The music is lyrical and singing. Although this music has echoes of Brahms, it is fresh throughout and distinctly early 21st century. It is lovely music to hear.
Pender composed and revised his 15-minute string trio, "Veil of Ignorance" between 2010 and 2013. The title alludes to the critical concept in John Rawls' famous work of political philosophy "A Theory of Justice" in which individuals try to imagine a just society without knowing what their specific place in it will be. The three movements in the piece consist of variations on a theme. The short, outer movements tend to be fast, angular, and astringent. The lengthy slow middle movement is flowing and lyrical with many different textures, including a beautiful cello solo towards the middle.
The remaining three works each are in three movements and are composed for piano and a solo string instrument. The "Rhapsody, Elegy and Finale for Violin and Piano" (2009) is a deeply romantic work with a wayward opening movement that moves from lyricism to an old-time country theme. The slow middle movement is an elegy in which the violin sings expansively and mournfully over repeated chords in the piano. The quick finale with both instruments playing together brings the work to a sweepingly romantic close.
The viola is under-appreciated as a solo instrument. Pender's "Sonata for Viola and Piano" (2009), which is based on notebooks from his student years, captures the melancholy rich sound of the instrument. The work opens with a sad, long theme which the viola presents over low, repeated, march-like notes in the piano. While the first movement is resolute, the viola wails in the halting slow second movement. The presto resolute finale brusquely concludes the work. This short, partly early work, is my favorite of the works on this CD.
The longest and most ambitious work on this CD is the "Sonata for Cello and Piano" composed between 2009 and 2013. This piece shows careful musical construction and organization over its 23 minute duration. The work shows the influence of Brahms' two sonatas for piano and cello, and it demands a great deal from both instruments. The opening moderato develops several contrasting themes with an overall impression of lyricism. The middle movement is a lively scherzo with a broad middle section and some light staccato passages for the piano. The lengthy finale is a Chaconne -- a set of variations over a short ground theme. It is spacious and expansive and reminded me of the finale of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, which I have heard recently and which also uses this Baroque form.
This CD is on Navona, a small company which specializes in contemporary music. Navona's website includes detailed liner notes about Pender and about the works on this recording. I have become friends with Scott Pender through our activity in a Washington, D.C. area classical music club, and he kindly gave me a copy of this CD to review. I enjoyed getting to know Pender and his musical gifts through this recording. This CD will appeal to listeners who love chamber music and who have a sense of adventure in exploring contemporary music.