by Ken Smith
Gerald Cohen’s publisher, Oxford University Press, claims that his Trio for viola, cello and piano was written ‘to fill a particular gap in the chamber music repertoire,’ but the committed performance here by the players to whom the work is dedicated reveals a much more personal involvement. As the title of this recording implies, Cohen composes with a strong sense of tradition — one that embraces Brahms, Bartok and Britten on one hand and his own Jewish heritage on the other.
Which side becomes more prominent depends, it seems, on how deeply any particular piece is rooted to text. A cantor himself, Cohen’s songs and his Passover cantata V’higad’ta L’vincha display a linguistic fluidity and a melodic gift that hints at what the Hebrew liturgy might be like today if Britten had changed faiths. Once away from the language, however, the Jewish roots recede into a broader modernist context. Cohen’s Trio replaces the standard violin with a viola, using the colours of the lower strings to great effect, but otherwise brings to mind Brahms as conjured through a late-20th-century ear.
His String Quartet No. 2, likewise, uses traditional structures, namely sonata form in the outer movements encasing a slow and lyrical elegy to his late father. The composer’s self-described synthesis of art, religion and family in this piece reveals a very personal modernism that makes for more difficult listening — imagine Bartok spiked with Hebraic modal and metric shifts — but offers greater emotional rewards as well.