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Dennis KAM (b.1942)
Several Times
String Quartet No.2 (1986) [14:18]
D-Bop: Sonata No.2 (2010) [10:15]
String Quartet No.1 (1966) [9:58]
Piano Sonata No.1 (2002) [12:25]
Mia Vassilev, Amy Tarantino-Trafton (piano)
Pedroia Quartet
Sirius Quartet
rec. 2016/17, Mix One Studios, Boston MA; Futura Productions, Roslindale, USA

This is a rewarding conspectus of Dennis Kam’s music for piano and for string quartet. It charts 45 years of his compositional development and though his music has been recorded by Paladino, Albany, TNC and other labels, Navona has a tradition of craftsmanship when it comes to its discs, reflected in the high level of performances.

The earliest work is the 1966 String Quartet No.1. Its language is broadly post-Weberian but even though elements are combative Kam’s resonant and persistent use of pizzicati signals future developments in his music. Its repetitions are taut and largely abstract and there is some razory intensity in the unisons, reflective of the prevailing ethos of the time. Twenty years later the Second Quartet shows a slackening of these intensities, replaced by a more dynamic use of overlapping repetitive devices – pizzicati once more fruitfully used. Kam’s intervallic sense is acute but his generous use of lyric gestures humanises his quartet to a powerful degree. Taut and tight, the finale explores different musical unit lengths. If this implies a mathematical imposition, you can be reassured that the effect is engaging.

The Piano Sonata No.1 dates from 2002 and its rolling minimalism generates quite a dynamic charge, even as it segues into more chiming episodes, themselves leading on to moments of real lyric elegance. D-Bop, Piano Sonata No.2A partially owes its genesis to a motif from Kam’s ten-minute opera The Lovely Octave. He has even appended a flow chart in the booklet to show how the different sections of the sonata follow each other. Intriguingly, there is also a Sonata 2B that takes similar material but in a different order so that the two sonatas can be played simultaneously – thus giving birth to Sonata 2C for two pianos. If this all seems very complicated, D-Bop exudes some pulsing phrases and its connective abruptness alternates with moments of chordal calm. Given its title I was expecting something reflective of, say, Thelonious Monk or Bud Powell, but this is a very different kettle of fish.

The performances are thoroughly well briefed and technically on-the-ball. The fact that there are two different quartets and two different pianists – D-Bop was written for the exponent here, Mia Vassilev – gives the performances strong individuality. If you are on Kam’s wavelength you will enjoy this.

Jonathan Woolf

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