ALTMAN 5 Variations on Rachmaninoff1. Through the Cracks2. No Hay Olvido (Sonata)3.  Filaments4. Brahms Takes5. Selfless Gifts6. Piano Sonata No. 7, “Tanzania”7. Laments of the Homeless Women9. Sonic Drifts10. Shirakawa River Song11. 10 Miniatures12. — 1,2,7Clipper Erickson (pn); 2,5,9Matthias Mueller (cl, bs cl); 3,7Patrice Michaels (sop); 3Cavatina Duo; 4Randy Bauer (pn); 4,8,11Kuang-Hao Huang (pn); 5,10Manhattan SQ;  6Andrew Rathbun (sx); 6Laurie Altman (pn); 8John-Bruce Yeh (cl) — NEOS 11614  (2CDs: 129:30) &

The present two-disc Neos set of 11 works by American composer Laurie Altman continues to cement my conviction that he is a major composer of our time. These works display a breadth of compositional prowess that is impressive and rewarding to listen to. Altman will never be a composer who puts all of his compositional eggs into one basket. The works heard herein require from one to four performers, and span a period of 25 years, a period of time sufficient to give an overview of Altman’s compositional art.

In a previous review, I had an opportunity to hear and review the composer’s take on Schoenberg’s Fantasy, Op. 19, and Stravinsky’s Octet. Here, the program begins with another consideration of a work by a very different composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the work that Altman puts under his compositional microscope is the Russian’s Piano Sonata, Op. 36 (the booklet mistakenly refers to it as Op. 35). Altman has taken the theme of the second movement and composed a set of variations on it. His guiding principle was the thought, “What if these notes and themes were my own instead of Rachmaninoff’s—where might I be inclined to take them and what shapes would such expressions take?” Consequently, after the initial original statement of Rachmaninoff’s tune, Altman launches into a set of variations in which he retains Rachmaninoff’s  gestures and textures, but replaces the Russian’s harmonies with his own tonally extended language. Along the way, he sneaks in other snippets from the master’s Second Sonata, such as the opening downward arpeggio at around the eight-minute mark. The piece, one of the earlier-composed works in the program, is very effective, especially in the skilled hands of pianist Clipper Erickson, who brings the intensity and power needed in Rachmaninoff’s music to Altman’s as well.

Through the Cracks is a five-minute work for clarinet and piano, with harmonies that veer very close to atonality. If you think you don’t like atonal music, though, this is a work for you. As is the case of much clarinet music, there is a good bit of jumping around in the clarinet part (and piano, for that matter), and Altman’s interweaving of the two instruments is nothing short of ingenious. Frequent changes of texture, articulation, and register add to the interest of the piece. No Hay Olvido (Sonata) (There is no forgetting) is based upon the eponymous poem of the outstanding Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Like the poem itself, Altman’s setting (for soprano, flute, and guitar) has a fair number of stops and starts, flitting around from one idea to the next. At around the seven-minute point, some Latin-infused rhythms are interjected into the musical texture. Soprano Patrice Michaels, a favorite singer of the composer judging by his use of her on a number of recordings of his music, extracts every ounce of drama from the text, and is sometimes called upon for special effects, such as extended trilled “R’s;” the Cavatina Duo performs brilliantly as well.

Jazz makes its first appearance in the recital in the following Filaments for two pianos, a delightful romp through rhythm and sonority. Pervading the piece are Latin and jazz dance rhythms, along with some more meditative sections. I cannot rave too much at the skill in which Altman combines jazz and classical ideas into a most arresting and satisfying synthesis. At the compositional antipodes is Brahms Takes, a work for bass clarinet and string quartet based loosely on the opening theme from the G-Major Violin Sonata of the German master. This theme undergoes all sorts of transformations, explorations, and reassignment of sonorities, and snippets of material from the original sonata are deftly manipulated, augmented, and diminished. to produce a highly original work wherein Brahms’s style goes in and out of focus.

Selfless Gifts, a work for soprano saxophone and piano, closes off the first disc, and here, Altman brings back his penchant for writing jazz. Mind you, this piece isn’t what I would call true jazz. However, it may be 80% of the way over towards the jazz end of the continuum, as there are plenty of jazz-like riffs and inflections to provide the flavor of the medium. There are licks that sound improvisatory, along with two actual sections of improvisation, adding to the effect. Altman describes the piece as a “commentary” on Copland’s Simple Gifts, but the reference is more veiled than overt.  Saxophonist Andrew Rathbun tosses off some tricky tonguing with ease, along with all the wicked licks, and Altman himself splendidly covers the piano part.

The second disc opens with the major work on the program, the nearly half-hour-long Piano Sonata No. 7, “Tanzania” in a stellar performance by Erickson. In 2011, the composer and his wife visited Tanzania, and upon their return, Altman wrote this work as a sort of reflection on that trip. Its initial impetus was the drumming music of that culture, but the work also reflects (in its second movement, “Legacy”) the assaults upon African culture by many of the people that occupied the continent over the centuries. Altman does this through a subdued atmosphere interrupted by dissonant ebullitions. The apotheosis of the Sonata may come at the opening of the fourth movement (“Song Dance”) wherein the composer presents a Tanzanian folk tune through an actual field recording. When the piano enters after some seconds, Altman’s music seems to be almost an extension of what was just sung. The style of the first and third movements, both entitled “Drumming,” is naturally quite rhythmic, and the “Legacy” movement paints a rather acerbic portrait of the various injustices perpetrated by foreigners upon the people of the continent. Thus, the final “Song Dance” movement presents the other side of the coin, namely the unbridled spirit of the Tanzanian people through its unrelenting vigor, and the movement concludes with a reiteration of the folk tune which then fades to nothing. There is nary the slightest hint of jazz to be found in this work.

The austerity of the Piano Soanta dissipates in Laments of the Homeless Women, a song cycle for soprano, clarinet, and piano on a poem of Californian poet David Sten Herrstrom, who was born in 1946. The mellifluous opening song yields to a rather pointillistic second in which the level of pathos is augmented significantly. Occasionally a line, e.g., “I offer my eye to those beyond fear,” is spoken rather than sung. The titles (including “Condemned” and “A Sidewalk Life”) and texts portray various aspects of the lives of those caught up in the widespread  homelessness that exists in our affluent society. Altman’s music underscores the plight of those so entrapped, although his music is by no means unrelentingly gloomy, and most often is cast in terms of simple lines and sparse harmonies.

Perhaps the most unusual work in this program is found in the Sonic Drifts for Sensor Augmented Bass Clarinet, a bass clarinet played in the normal manner, but one that has sensors connected to it and to a computer that produce electronic effects. See the above interview for a fuller explanation of the instrument by the composer. The piece is a delight, with the electronics serving as a kind of commentary on the bass clarinet’s wandering line. The piece is gently atonal at times, and obliquely tonal at others. Considerable virtuosity is demanded of the soloist Matthias Mueller, who adroitly handles every challenge. Portions of this nine-minute work seem rather humorous to my ears, although like the bassoon, I think the bass clarinet is a naturally humorous instrument, the electronics simply enhancing this characteristic.

Shirakawa River Song is scored for string quartet, its idea coming to the composer during a jog along the river of the same name in Kanazawa, Japan. In this work, he has sought to intertwine elements of light, bird sounds, and the rippling water of the river. Needless to say, the piece is so well-written, that the listener can enjoy it on purely musical grounds, which include the leaps and rhythmic angularity of much of Altman’s music. Other effects including sections senza vibrato and sul ponticello are utilized to spectacular effect in this rather brief work. The Manhattan String Quartet plays this work with absolute mastery.

The program closes with Ten Miniatures for Piano, a series of charming and contrasting vignettes that are meant to say what the composer intends quickly and directly, with little or no development of their ideas. There is a wide variety of emotion to be found in these divergent miniatures, although if there is an idée fixe, it would be Altman’s rhythmic vitality. Pianist Kuang-Hao Huang plays these pieces as if he had been born to them.

In addition to the unfailingly superb music found on these two discs and the equally superb rendition of it by each and every performer involved, the sonic quality of this Neos set is worth mentioning. I have seldom heard such life-like sound emanate from my speakers, even though there were a number of engineers and venues involved here. This is a sine qua non acquisition for anyone interested in the music of our time. David DeBoor Canfield