Going Home – Solo Piano Music

(Troy 828)
Four Chorale Preludes
Miniature Diversions
Piano Sonata No. 2, “TALA”
Larry Bell-Piano


About the Music

String Quartet No. 3 (Homage to Beethoven), op. 71, was commissioned by artist Fay Chandler for the Borromeo String Quartet, who premiered the work December 11, 2005. For a few years first violinist Nicholas Kitchen and I had had informal discussions about my writing a new piece for the Quartet. Always in agreement about we did not want in a new work, we shared a fanatical obsession with the quartets of Beethoven. After hearing the Borromeo Quartet perform three late Beethoven quartets in the fall of 2004 at the Gardner Museum, I began this new work with a fresh sense of purpose.

As the subtitle Homage to Beethoven suggests, my quartet owes a great debt to Beethoven’s last five quartets, in particular Opp. 131 and 132. My seven-movement, arch-like structure, with its opening fugue and central variations flanked by two scherzi, mirrors the structure of Beethoven’s Op. 131. The use of double variations
and two brief cadenzas, first for cello and later for violin, resembles the Lydian-mode movement (III) and the virtuosic solo violin writing in Op. 132. Unlike Beethoven’s characteristic confrontation with fate, however, a sense of lightness and humor pervades this work. No attempt at quotation is made here. Instead, I wished to pay tribute, in my own way, to the music that has continually sustained me as a listener and that has always inspired me to a higher level of compositional achievement. The character of the music represents my own particular synthesis of tonality, lyricism, and polyphony that grew out of a love for both string instruments and the human voice. Writing a string quartet (or a symphony) brings enormous challenges because of inevitable comparisons between works of the present and the great string quartet repertoire of the past. Unlike some composers of the post-World War II generation, however, I have never sought to break with the past and its compositional and performance traditions. In fact, it became both relatively easy and a joy to write this work once I realized that I could, in effect, write music outside recent avant-garde traditions.

I wrote String Quartet No. 3 in October of 2004. Over twenty years had elapsed since the composition of my String Quartet No. 2 (premiered by the Columbia Quartet in New York in 1982) and thirty years since my String Quartet No. 1 (premiered by the Juilliard String Quartet in 1976). By the fall of 2004 a unique convergence of time, people, and place made the composition of a new quartet feel inevitable. To have performers such as the Borromeo String Quartet, who play with such verve, passion, commitment, and attention to detail, would inspire any composer. They certainly inspired me. In performance, their seriousness of intent–in this most serious of all chamber music genres–was an impetus to compose a work that for over a generation I had imagined writing.

CELESTIAL REFRAIN FOR GUITAR, OP. 24, was commissioned by Russell Southcott and Steven Walter and was completed, with the aid of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, in July 1985 at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. The work is a double variation based on two different themes; one is slow and dramatic and the other fast and dance-like. The centerpiece is a song drawn from my Sacred Symphonies based on the words “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart.” As the piece unfolds these themes become more alike in shape and character. Guitar Review described the piece as “eleven pages of great music… folk-like, at times almost primitive, yet always rich in ideas and inventiveness… [it] will haunt both your mind and your heart.”

TARAB FOR 8 CELLOS, OP. 66, WAS COMMISSIONED for the Tarab Cello Ensemble in 2003 by its founder, Florent Renard-Payen. In three large sections, the work was conceived as a concertino for two cello quartets. Tarab is one of my most experimental pieces of recent years. Here I combine my interest in using high-ratio polyrhythms to articulate the background phrase structure with a new emphasis on working with a large harmonic vocabulary. Two quartets begin by sharing similar characteristics. By the second section the quartets operate entirely in opposition; while one quartet plays slowly and expressively, the other plays resolute and dance-like music. The antiphonal call-andresponse between the two quartets reaches its climax at the end of the second section, where all eight cellos play one phrase in unison. In the third section each cello plays a short cadenza. Little by little these solos form duets, then trios, and, finally, the initial quartet juxtaposition of sharing similar characteristics is reestablished. The overall shape of the work is one of growing tension, catharsis, and resolution leading the listener–it is hoped–to a state of ecstasy, or ‘tarab.’

–Liner notes by Larry Bell


Music for Strings CD Review

Larry Thomas Bell: String Quartet No. 3 (Homage to Beethoven); Celestial Refrain; Tarab; Albany TROY986; Borromeo Quartet, John Muratore, Tarab Cello Ensemble (60:01) A number of recordings are available of the chamber and orchestral music of American composer Larry Bell (b. 1952). However, this new Albany disc, containing three works, is the best single-disc introduction to his work currently available. It is a magnificent release that displays well the vitality and creativity of Bell’s music. Resident for many years in Boston, Larry Thomas Bell is on the faculty of the New England Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music and taught for a number of the years both at Boston Conservatory and the Juilliard School. A student of Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions, Bell has been awarded the Rome Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. Though he has composed a number of orchestral works, he is best known for his personal and compelling works for chamber ensemble and solo forces (particularly his own instrument, the piano), some of which such as his Mahler in Blue Light, op. 43 (1996) have become modern classics.

Each of the three works on this Albany release represents one of the musical “strains” that runs throughout the composer’s entire catalogue and comprise the elements of Bell’s personal style. String Quartet No. 3 (Homage to Beethoven), op. 71 (2004) showcases the stylistic connection that Bell’s music makes with the past, particularly the music of the Romantic period. Celestial Refrain, op. 24 (1985) for solo guitar, draws upon the sounds and idiom American folk hymnody, particularly those hymns of the South that Bell heard as a child and began incorporating into his music (both through direct quotation and through original material in a similar style) in the 1980’s. Finally, Tarab, op. 66 (2003) for double cello quartet, draws upon the complexities of rhythm and temporal proportions (inspired, in Bell’s case, by the music of Elliott Carter, but presented within a more accessible, and largely diatonic musical language than Carter uses). Nearly every one of Bell’s compositions draws upon these different elements to greater and lesser extents, and this single release showcases three of Bell’s pieces in which these elements are each presented clearly and synthesized into Bell’s stylistic voice.

The extended String Quartet No. 3 (Homage to Beethoven) pays tribute to Beethoven’s music (particularly the late string quartets) in its structural and developmental complexities. The seven movements of the work, however, explore a very different emotional terrain from Beethoven’s own late quarters. In his notes on the work, Bell remarks on the sense of “lightness and humor” that pervades the work. It is a piece full of rich, beautiful textures that is performed exquisitely by the Borromeo Quartet.

Celestial Refrain, performed by guitarist John Muratore, is a set of “double” variations upon folk-like hymn material (two contrasting ideas, one slow and one fast), originally from the composer’s orchestral work Sacred Symphonies. In this work, Bell achieves a perfect balance between stasis and activity and presents musical material that is tuneful and memorable.

Tarab is named after its commissioners, the Tarab Cello Ensemble, and takes its title from the term within Islamic music implying a sense of ecstasy, usually derived from the rhythmic experience of music. Bell describes the piece as articulating his interest in “high-ratio polyrhythms”, which he exploits by setting up a contrasting and referential textures between the two cello quartets. As is true with the best of Bell’s “rhythmic experiments”, they are deployed in service of an exceptionally musical impulse; the listener needs to know nothing about polyrhythms to enjoy the “sacred space” that Bell creates.

These three superlative works are representative of what this reviewer believes is the best sort of new music being written today—accessible, yet sophisticated. On a first listen, the listener is seduced by the beauty of sounds and melodies and clarity of textures. On subsequent listens, one continues to discover further treasures in the unfolding of internal references and the organic sense of musical development that Bell employs.

This disc was a highlight of the myriad new discs of American released in 2007 and certainly the best new release of chamber music that I heard all year. Strongly and urgently recommended.

– Carson Cooman, Vol. 22 / No. 2 the journal of the Living Music Foundation Spring 2008


more info:
Albany Records
ITunes music store