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More Essential Martin Bresnick: The Planet on the Table

by Martin Bresnick, with Brentano String Quartet, Elly Toyoda, Ashley Bathgate, Lisa Moore

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    Limited edition six-panel double gatefold CD wallet designed by Denise Burt and featuring photography by Kevin Dooley

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Parisot 14:12
Bundists 01:45 video


As the long-awaited follow-up to the 2006 Cantaloupe release The Essential Martin Bresnick, this volume of Bresnick’s recorded oeuvre focuses on the epic five-part string quartet The Planet on the Table, composed in 2019 and recorded by the Brentano String Quartet. Inspired, or better yet instigated, by the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the piece is meant to convey music and sounds that emerge from the mists of memory.

Poignant, meditative and powerful, The Planet on the Table sets the tone for the two challenging pieces that follow: Parisot, featuring cellist Ashley Bathgate, and Bird As Prophet, featuring violinist Elly Toyoda and pianist Lisa Moore. Both are extended studies in evoking the spirit of their namesakes — Brazilian cellist Aldo Parisot, known for his musicality and technical brilliance, and composer Robert Schumann (with a nod to Charlie Parker), whose piano miniature Bird As Prophet from the Waldszenen also served as inspiration.

The recording concludes with Lisa Moore’s intense performance of Bundists, for solo piano — a brief but lively work that folds elements of Schumann, Ligeti, and other fragments of Bresnick’s own into a burst of color and sound.

BRESNICK The Planet on the Table !. Parisot 2. Bird as Prophet 3. Bundists 4. !Brentano SQ; 2Ashley Bathgate (vc); 3Elly Toyoda (vn); 3,4Lisa Moore (pn) ● CANTALOUPE 21166 (61:06)

Martin Bresnick (b.1946) has carved out a body of work that I think will stand the test of time. He is a “composer’s composer”, not because the music is in any way overly academic or hermetic, but because it has rock-solid integrity in both its expression and structure. It communicates a deep urgency and desire to connect — with both performers and listeners. It doesn’t aim for easy accommodation with the tastes or issues of the time, even though it has always been rigorously right-minded. 
 Bresnick, while always a leader in the field, has not perhaps had the highest exposure of those in his generation. Part of this comes from the fact that he is perhaps the greatest teacher we have, and has remained a little behind the scenes as a result. His studio at Yale has produced a dazzling string of important younger composers who have profoundly shaped the discourse. Further, the vast majority of his music has been in chamber media. The pieces certainly can be substantive and expansive, but genres such as symphony and opera have not been a major part of his output (though they do exist!). The flipside is that any work he produces for a smaller ensemble has the feel of something much bigger.

This release combines a work in recorded premiere with some a little older. The newest (2019) is the String Quartet #4, “The Planet on the Table”. It’s in five movements, each inspired by a poem of Wallace Stevens. It has a very satisfying arc: the first movement rings out with the tidal push of chords, and develops into an ever more rich and complex surge. The second opens up into great lyricism, and feels Sibelian to me. The third is more fragmented; there’s a sense that things are falling apart and that silences are invading the texture, though it coalesces into a concerted lyric statement near the end. The fourth is a meditative ramble, and the title “Someone Has Walked Across the Snow” gives away the game. It is a gentle fantasia on the Debussy prelude Footsteps in the Snow. (And yet when I first listened to this without notes or knowing the title I didn’t make the connection; proof of the strength of the composer’s own original voice even when channeling a different source.) The fifth has a return of proto-minimalist repetitive synergy. I may be wrong, but I couldn’t help but hear a ghost of a slow movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony asserting itself near the end.
 Bresnick makes an oblique reference in his brief notes to “the music and sounds of a remembered time or of something heard that I liked”. And thus, the things that I’m hearing in the background may well be an artifact of subtle homage that is woven into this testament.

The other three works are more compact, but still have real impact. Parisot (2016) is a tribute to the eponymous cellist who was Bresnick’s colleague at Yale, and one of the leading pedagogues of the instrument. It’s for 12 celli, and here is performed by the astounding Ashley Bathgate in a multitracked rendition. It opens with a grand statement that one can justly call noble. Stern repetitive pizzicati drive the music, until it reaches a point of harmonious stasis.
 Bird as Prophet (1999) is part of a sequence of works called Opere della Musica Povera (“Poor music“, but in the sense of the Italian visual arts movement known as Arte Povera, which used simple and ordinary materials). The piece is a passacaglia, whose rhetoric is spacious and pushing toward a sort of transcendent melody. Though this ancestor is lurking throughout Bresnick’s oeuvre, here I think Brahms comes most to the fore (though the composer actually mentions Schumann in his notes—I’ll agree with that too. In fact the title a translation of the title of a work in the Waldszenen set). I don’t mean to suggest that Bresnick is piling up postmodern chits, references to show off his erudition. Just the opposite, one senses a deep personal engagement with tradition that is respectful but never obeisant. 

And finally there is a brief solo piano piece, Bundists (2015), part of a project of short pieces inspired by Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, that is an almost perfect blending of Romantic spirit with modernist and postmodernist technique.

These performances are passionate and authoritative. All the players have had a long musical relationship with the composer; I’ve already cited Bathgate, but of course the Brentano, Lisa Moore, and Elly Toyoda demonstrate deep and committed understanding. Bresnick continues to prove he’s a national treasure.

Robert Carl


released November 12, 2021


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Martin Bresnick New Haven, Connecticut

From the Bronx, New York City, Bresnick delights in reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable, bringing together repetitive gestures derived from minimalism with a harmonic palette that encompasses both highly chromatic sounds and more open, consonant harmonies and a raw power reminiscent of rock. At times his musical ideas spring from hardscrabble sources, often with a very real political import. ... more

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