Daniel Crozier: East of the Sun & West of the Moon
Navona Records

Inspired by the narrative potency of opera and the way in which the music in its finest works doesn't merely accompany the onstage drama but rather expresses it in its own instrumental terms, Daniel Crozier aspired to weave a similarly powerful narrative dimension into his Symphony No. 1: Triptych for Orchestra (1998-2004) and Ballade: A Tale after the Brothers Grimm (2006). In his view, music, even in its most abstract, non-referential form, harbours the potential to communicate a narrative of sorts borne out of its own particular syntax, especially when it's as vivid as it is in these instances.

In the two works presented, there are no characters per se, though musical motifs and specific instruments might be said to function in that capacity (in text accompanying the release, Crozier himself refers to “two or three principal thematic ideas or ‘characters' within the ballade and the symphony's individual movements). The intense manner by which the elements interact and the tension and conflicts that arise as they do so could be regarded as analogues to the interactions between characters in a conventional plot.

Crozier's approach to titling is clever, with each of the four designed to accommodate interpretative flexibility. The symphony's “Ceremonies” and “Capriccio” are open-ended titles, while “Fairy Tale: East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and Ballade: A Tale After the Brothers Grimm are in their own way equally amenable. In both cases, Crozier hints at a possible interpretative direction but still leaves it open; in the case of the latter, the listener's familiarity with the brothers' stories allows the title to engender any number of associations in response to his music. To these ears, there are passages in the arrangements when comparisons to Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bartok are warranted, Crozier's writing appearing to demonstrate a particular affinity to the early twentieth-century tradition. His material isn't overly derivative, however, but rather suggests commonalities with the styles of those composers.

Music by this much-recorded Professor of Theory and Composition at Rollins College has been described as “harmonically lush and lyrically soaring” by The New York Times, and certainly such a description could be applied to the luxuriant pieces presented here. Performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra with Gerard Schwarz conducting, the symphony opens with “Ceremonies,” which quickly establishes a mood of grandeur and mystery, its harmonic design darkened by flirtations with atonality. Crozier's superior command of orchestral colour is evident from the outset, the spell woven by strings and woodwinds strong. In contrast to the opening movement's pensive quality, “Capriccio” is livelier, animated without necessarily conforming to a strict dance-like metre. Yet while strings do bustle agitatedly and horns do bluster, there are also quieter moments, including some marvelous woodwinds sequences that call to mind the sparkling orchestral writing of Petrouchka. As evocative is “Fairy Tale: East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” whose opening fanfares reinstate the darkness of the opening movement before giving way to a transporting strings melody that grows increasingly expressive as it swells to a climax. Subsequent to that, the music, prominently led by oboe and flute in respective solo turns, becomes first plaintive and then brooding, turbulence mounting and ever close at hand until a finely wrought resolution brings the piece to a tranquil close.

Exquisitely realized by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavrínek, Ballade: A Tale after the Brothers Grimm merits a spot in any symphony orchestra's programme, so rich in texture and scope is its single-movement design. Impish woodwind sequences, brash trumpet declamations, bold rhythmic flourishes, lyrical oboe melodies, percussive punctuations, portentous horns, silken strings—all such details intermingle over the course of its eleven-minute presentation. These dramatic tales of adventure and romance might call to mind images of swashbucklers, gunslingers, or any number of characters and contexts, but in the end Crozier prefers indeterminacy. In his own words, “What tales are told in these musical stories? In the spirit of their literary models, it seems less entertaining to know for sure than it is to imagine.”

February 2018