American-born composer Michael Torke (b. 1961) wrote all three of these pieces between 1998 and 2001, when he was associate composer for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. His position gave him the chance to have all his music performed by a top-drawer professional organization and presented the opportunity to have all three compositions recorded by Naxos for its American Classics series.
An American Abroad is a bustling tone poem that seems to have a new idea a minute as it depicts a whirlwind journey full of adventure and curiosity. A lyrical, languorous middle section occurs when the traveler, apparently weary of the pace, stops to enjoy a particular environ and location. It is all very reminiscent of Gershwin. Jasper portrays the moods surrounding a house overlooking Lake Superior and is a succinct and appealing tone poem.
The piece de resistance is Rapture, a concerto for percussion soloist and orchestra. It is divided into three movements with self-explanatory titles: "Drums and Woods," " Mallets," and "Metals." In his brief, and not always totally clear, program notes, the composer links this music to "News for a Delphic Oracle," a late poem by W. B. Yeats. It describes a ritualistic rite that unites religious and sexual experience into a "rapture" that sweeps all before it. One can surely sense this spirit in the toccata-like third movement, where the banging and clanging rhythms of the solo part are conveyed to the orchestra, all culminating in a powerful Dionysian frenzy.
Soloist Colin Currie plays as if he had three or more hands at times, never missing a beat. To call this virtuoso playing would be to create a supreme understatement. One comes away from this recording wishing it had been a DVD-V disc so that the visual part of the performance could have been experienced as well as the audio. The orchestra provides excellent support, though there could have been a bit more snap in some of the rhythms that mirror those of the soloist. The recorded sound might be partly at fault. The percussion instruments are placed forward and when they are going full tilt, the violins and woodwinds all but disappear in the mix. This balance might happen in live performance, but could be compensated for in recording. There might also be a stronger bass line, but this is something that most of the engineers working for Naxos seem to eschew as unnatural. I have never heard a Naxos recording with too much bass!
Those small gripes aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable disc of music not to be heard anywhere else. And since it is in the Naxos series, one can adventure and purchase it for minimal cost. It is by offering this kind of bargain that Naxos has become such a prominent and successful company.
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