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Conlon NANCARROW (compositions 1935 to 1986)

Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra • Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra • Prelude and Blues • Sonatina (trans. Y. Mikhashoff) • String Quartet No. 1 • Study No. 15 (trans. Y. Mikhashoff) • Tango? • Toccata for Violin and Player Piano • Trio Movement

Rachel Evans, viola / Maria Kitsopoulos, cello / David Krakauer, clarinet / Celeste Marie Roy, bassoon / Joel Sachs, piano / Cheryl Seltzer, piano / Mark Steinberg, violin / Mia Wu, violin / Continuum / Joel Sachs, conductor
Naxos American Classics 8.559196 [45 mins]

Beethoven riposted to Schuppanzigh, who'd complained about the difficulty of Op 95: "Do you think I worry about your wretched fiddle when the spirit speaks to me?"

Conlon Nancarrow had to isolate himself with a player-piano in Mexico to realise his visions, and to wait for some forty years before technique caught up and live musicians were able to tackle his demandingly virtuosic and rhythmically complex music.

This release is as good an approach to this charming eccentric as any; I have a treasured memory of chatting with him when he was welcomed at the great, late Almeida Festival in London towards the end of his life. And of Yvar Mikhashoff, who probably invited Nancarrow there, and has transcribed some of his music played here by Joel Sachs & Cheryl Seltzer, four-handed piano.

One oddity; these 1989 recordings amount to 45 mins and Naxos has chosen coyly not to reveal this, presumably because of market research into purchasers' greed? Only 45 mins for £5 !! No account of the thousands of hours taken to compose, prepare and record this cutting-edge music, mostly fast and of great complexity......

It is a roller-coaster, one of the most exilharating musical rides you'll ever take. Think of its duration as 1½ hours, because I'm sure you'll want to play it twice, then it won't hurt your wallet so much.

The expert players of Continuum, whose contributions are jewels in Naxos's American catalogue, despatch all this deliciously fearsome music with gleeful relish, and for once I don't object to their back-cover portrait!

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf