Argento Chamber Ensemble
Undoubtedly, the Argento Chamber Ensemble titled their new CD (a collection of pieces by Tristan Murail) Winter Fragments because it contains a piece of the same name. It would’ve made an appropriate title regardless. In the five works presented on the disc, Murail’s music evokes a uniquely icy beauty. A lot like a barely frozen lake, Murail’s sound world is lovely to admire, but it keeps you at a distance. There’s nothing inaccessible about his writing (or Argento’s lucid performance), but an undercurrent of mystery and fragility keeps listeners sharply attuned.
The disc, appropriately, begins with the titular Winter Fragments, and it’s this piece that best represents the analogy. In fact, Murail attributes some of his inspiration here to his experience of winter living “north of New York” in a “land of lakes and hills.” This experience is rendered in the work as an eerie, stark stillness regularly interrupted by chilly, swirling gusts of varying intensity. Murail achieves this landscape by deftly using electronics to augment a quintet (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano). The acoustic and electronic elements are blended remarkably successfully.
The second track, Unanswered Questions for solo flute, only deepens the mystery (especially since if there’s an Ives reference in there, I can’t find it). A slow, thoughtful melody wanders – perhaps lost, but resigned to that fact. The performer here is Erin Lesser, and she delivers a fine, subtle performance. Clocking in at about four and a half minutes, it leaves me wanting more. Fortunately, Lesser returns in the next piece, Ethers. Here, though, she’s immersed in the ensemble, playing several different flutes, and performing extended techniques like singing one pitch while playing another. As you might suspect, it’s quite a contrast from Unanswered Question. The rest of the ensemble is similarly busy with extremely fluctuating tempi (climaxing with a frenetic section about two-thirds in) and unorthodox techniques of their own to realize. Murail provides a good description of what exactly underlies all the joyful noise here.
The next work, Feuilles í travers les clolches, gives listeners a bit of a breather. I reviewed Argento’s live performance of the work at Merkin in February, and further listening confirmed that description for me. I will say, though, that the piece sounds much less still when extracted from that concert’s Expressionist context.
The CD concludes with Murail’s Le Lac, which calls for the largest ensemble of the five pieces and also lasts the longest. As the title (“The Lake,” in translation) suggests, we again see Murail deriving inspiration from nature, and in many ways the piece does resemble Winter Fragments. The mystery and fragility certainly remain, though it’s apparent that the weather has warmed up a little bit. Ultimately though, Le Lac doesn’t come off as program music. It’s not about the lake; it’s just from there. That’s a good thing, because it frees listeners up to appreciate Murail’s skilled writing (in particular, his orchestrational talents, which are best represented here), rather than to play spot-the-reference.
As a final note, Argento deserve commendation for delivering a CD that matches fine performance with fine recording and mixing. Murail’s works live in the details, and Argento have rendered them richly. It’s really one of the best recorded classical discs I’ve heard. Murail worked intimately with Argento, so perhaps the quality is due to his composerly input. But, conductor Michel Galante and fellow artistic supervisors Michael Klingbeil and Joshua Fineberg certainly deserve a hand.