Sawyer: Quartets 2+3; 5 Bagatelles; Pas de Deux.

American Record Guide March-April , 2006

SAWYER: Quartets 2+3; 5 Bagatelles; Pas de Deux Lighthouse Chamber Players; Arden Quartet, Hekun Wu, Michael Bonner, vc; Francine Trester, v; Elise Yun, p--Albany 781--60 minutes

Eric Sawyer is an American-born-and-trained composer now teaching at Amherst. This is the first of his music I've heard, and I have to say right off the bat I'm mightily impressed. Sawyer writes in a loosely diatonic, modern-but-tonally-anchored language that often doesn't sound particularly American to my ears, but rather recalls (of all people) Britten and some of his between-the-wars contemporaries, if updated a bit by more contemporary and vernacular touches.

These touches are most evident in his lively and varied Five Bagatelles (for cello and piano). In the scherzo, for instance (IV), Sawyer uses some syncopations imported from jazz; and the influence of Sawyer's teacher Andrew Imbrie is noticeable in the agile, nervously scurrying phrases of I. Imbrie's influence is also apparent in Pas de Deux, for violin and cello, a florid, inventive, rhapsodic 9-minute impromptu that explores complex interpenetrations of the two string sonorities with a winning mix of playfulness, nuance, and energy. In both works, and indeed in all the music here, there is a scrupulous avoidance of contemporary-sounding post-Bartokian instrumental effects or harsh harmonic clashes. Sawyer's emotional sensibility is consistently humane, warm but decorous and subtle, avoiding extremes or empty display of any kind.

The quartets are bigger, more ambitious, and more serious compositions, laid out in more expansive phrases and time spans. Allegros are muscular and propelled along by ostinato-like figures, set off by contrasting sostenuto sections; andantes are rather dreamy and impressionist, with richer, pastel harmonies but still a strong sense of forward motion and often a fair amount of accompanimental activity. The balance of drive with lyricism and of muscular tension with delicacy--in addition to the intricate interweaving of sharply articulated voices--all add up to a "sound" that recalls Britten's instrumental pieces (his early Fantasy Quartet for instance) more than anything else I can think of. But whatever their kinships, the integrity, craftsmanship, and expressive force of these quartets--and indeed everything on this superbly-played-and-recorded program--maintain a consistently exalted level. Quartet 3, in particular, is a splendid achievement.

Anyone devoted to well-made 20th Century chamber music will admire and enjoy all four pieces, as I do. Sawyer is a composer of considerable skill and stature, and I hope to see more of his music issued soon.

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