A Muczynski Retrospective

by Walter Simmons



Robert Muczynski is, along with Lee Hoiby, one of America’s most distinguished traditionalist composers still active today, from the generation that came of age during the years following World War II. He is also one of the most widely and frequently performed, although his name rarely appears in discussions of important American composers of the time. The reasons for this have much to do with musical politics, fashion, and geography, and little to do with quality or merit. Born in Chicago in 1929, he studied piano and composition at DePaul University with Alexander Tcherepnin, who was his most significant mentor. Muczynski pursued a career as a composer-pianist, becoming a persuasive exponent of his own music. During the 1960s he moved to Tucson, joining the faculty of the University of Arizona as composer-in-residence. He held this position until his retirement in 1988.

The three new CDs to be discussed here, which happened to arrive during the same week, present fully one third of Muczynski’s entire output, and span the years 1953 through 1994. Hence they provide an ideal opportunity for an overview of the composer’s oeuvre, while enabling the listener toverify the summary remarks that follow. The two Laurel discs reissue most of the contents of three enthusiastically received LPs released by the company during the early 1980s, while presenting a couple of additional pieces never before recorded. The Hungaroton release is brand new, featuring three works, one of which overlaps the Laurel material, another of which is also available in a different performance on Centaur, and the third of which is new to CD (but was included on yet another Laurel LP). (To round out the most important discographical information: An entire CD devoted to Muczynski’s music featuring the flute is included in Naxos’s American Classics series [reviewed in Fanfare 22:4].)

Muczynski has concentrated his compositional efforts on works for solo piano and pieces for small chamber combinations. His music exemplifies mid-20th-century American neoclassicism, tempered by a romantic sense of mood and affect. One might identify its underlying stylistic currents with reference to the phraseology of Bartók, the harmonic language and overall rhetoric found in the piano works of Barber, a fondness for 5- and 7-beat meters reminiscent of Bernstein, and a piquant sprinkling of “blue-notes” within its melodic structures. The music is modest, soft-spoken, earnest, and unpretentious in character, and is developed according to techniques that are thoroughly traditional—some might say conventional. The result is a friendly modernism—tonal but not reactionary, peppered with light dissonance and energetic asymmetries of rhythm—always expertly tailored to highlight the artistry of the performer in a manner idiomatic to the featured instrument. It is not hard to understand why his pieces have been favored by music teachers and are often used as test-pieces in competitions. Indeed, music like this is easy to patronize—or would be, if it weren’t for what might be termed its essential honesty. Without ostentation, pretense, or much alteration of his basic style, Muczynski has produced piece after piece of authentic musical expression, without hiding behind any of the compositional smokescreens to which so many composers resort. I am not referring only to the modernist smokescreens of technical complexity, originality, and pseudo-profound obfuscation; Muczynski also avoids empty virtuosity, grandiosity, overpowering emotionalism, opulent sonority, and eccentricity—the kinds of smokescreens to which more conservative composers fall victim in their weaker moments. Muczynski’s pieces tend to be short because his music is pure substance—nothing but the aesthetic basics: straightforward yet distinctive themes and motifs, woven into clear, transparent textures, developed logically but imaginatively into concise, satisfying, compelling formal entities.

The two Laurel discs are largely devoted to Muczynski’s music for piano solo (although a few such pieces are still unrecorded), with the addition of three pieces featuring flute and clarinet. The two discs present the music chronologically, the first extending through the late 1960s, the second starting with 1970. The fourteen pieces thus included comprise several extended works: the three sonatas for piano, the flute sonata, and Time Pieces for clarinet and piano; most of the remainder consists of short character-pieces,  averaging a minute-plus in duration. Obviously one of Muczynski’s favorite genres, naturally suited to his compositional personality, such short vignettes have reappeared throughout his creative life.

What may be observed from such an overview is how steadfastly Muczynski has held to a relatively narrow creative range, and how little his musical language has evolved over the course of four decades. But what is most remarkable is—despite those two generalizations—how consistently high is the quality of this music with regard to its thematic material, its expressive content, and its workmanship. In fact, after having been familiar with most of these pieces for almost twenty years, I find virtually nothing—not even the simple duos for flute and clarinet—less than fully realized.

Muczynski’s three piano sonatas date from 1957, 1966, and 1974, respectively. No. 2 is perhaps the most ambitious in scope and was the first to attract my attention. A vigorously virtuosic work in four movements, it bears a striking resemblance to Samuel Barber’s notable contribution to the genre, which may, however, temper the enthusiasm of some listeners. Sonata No. 1 was written for the pianist-composer’s Carnegie Recital Hall debut in 1958, and bears a dedication to Tcherepnin. In preparing this review I was struck anew by the dark, dramatic moodiness of the first of its two movements—a magnificent example of modern romanticism at its best. My only complaint is that the contrasting second movement is a little glib in its dismissal of the weighty concerns that immediately precede it. The Third Sonata is similar to its two predecessors in style and tone, if perhaps a bit less dramatic in content and more refined in execution.

Muczynski composed his Sonata for Flute and Piano in 1961, and it is probably his most well-known and frequently-performed work. A staple of the repertoire, it is familiar to all players advanced enough to attempt it. Varied in expression and expertly crafted, it is as enjoyable and satisfying to hear as it is to play.

Much the same may be said about Time Pieces, a 16-minute work in four movements for clarinet and piano, commissioned in 1984 by Mitchell Lurie, who plays it on this recording. This is the piece that overlaps the Hungarian recording, and is well on the way to establishing itself in the clarinet repertoire. Despite its enigmatic title, the work is essentially similar in structure to those identified as sonatas.

I will not attempt to describe the groups of character pieces—the PreludesSuiteA Summer JournalSeven, and the Maverick Pieces—individually. Music of this nature is difficult to describe verbally, beyond the foregoing general comments. I will add only that, although Muczynski’s style has evolved little over the years—perhaps moving from more overt reference to his musical models to a broader, freer expressive palette—the music continues to sound fresh and imaginative, with little sense of redundancy.

The Laurel set also includes a three-minute Toccata, a demanding, relatively harsh, bracing study in perpetual motion, recorded by the composer shortly after he wrote it in 1962. The other novelty is the debut recording of one of Muczynski’s most recent works: Desperate Measures, a set of twelve variations on “that” theme of Paganini, composed in 1994. Talk about the possibility of redundancy! But no—Muczynski takes a decidedly “fun” approach, with a series of witty, almost jazzy, takes on the venerable tune. I expect that once the word on this piece gets out, it will be another “hit.”

Throughout these recordings, Muczynski represents his music advantageously, with pianism marked by fluency, sensitivity, and subtlety. Nevertheless, it does him no disservice to point out that, rather than being definitive renditions, his readings serve more as enticing and informative approximations, which whet the appetite of the adventurous, creative virtuoso by drawing attention to music that might otherwise be overlooked and suggesting the artistic potential inherent within it.

Turning now to the Hungaroton release—the Trio d’Echo is a relatively young ensemble based in Budapest. Comprising clarinet, cello, and piano, the Trio addresses Muczynski’s Fantasy Trio, scored for that combination, as well as his two respective duos featuring clarinet and cello, each with piano. Fantasy Trio, dating from 1969, is an infectious work, grabbing the listener’s attention immediately with its grippingly assertive opening, and maintaining it throughout. A performance featuring the Mühlfeld Trio was released on a Laurel LP in 1983, but has not been reissued on CD. That reading boasted tremendous vigor and spunk, in addition to precision; the Trio d’Echo’s, on the other hand, is smoother and more polished, but a little cautious and deliberate.

The same distinction applies with regard to the Time Pieces. Clarinetist András Horn and pianist Gábor Eckhardt offer a polished reading that borders on the antiseptic, while Mitchell Lurie and the composer take chances that result in a more exciting experience.

Muczynski’s four-movement Sonata for Cello and Piano, composed in 1968, is possibly his masterpiece. While aesthetically consistent with all his other works, it seems to aim for a deeper, more probing level of expression. Its opening movement, a theme with variations, reveals a somber bleakness that reminds one of Vaughan Williams’s great Flos Campi, while its slow movement develops an austere lyricism to impressively eloquent heights. The two fast movements provide compelling contrast, with a grim and energetic sense of determination. Cellist György Déri offers a solidly convincing reading, but mention must also be made of an extraordinary performance that can be found on Centaur CRC-2300, featuring cellist Carter Enyeart and pianist Adam Wodnicki. These two U.S.-based artists offer a reading of unerring precision and blistering intensity. I cannot resist quoting from commentator Laurie Shulman’s perceptive notes accompanying that recording: “The [first-movement] theme’s recurrence in the finale is only one manifestation of the organic logic that permeates this piece. [Muczynski’s] writing is well-crafted without being pedantic…. Perhaps [his] greatest achievement in this sonata is the immense respect he accords to traditional form and harmony, without sounding conservative…. Defying the serialist pundits who dominated American music in the 1960s, Muczynski showed in this work that there is indeed something new under the sun.”

As musicians continue to discover, perform, and record the fine music of Robert Muczynski, attention is directed to his three piano trios and a string trio, all of which are among his strongest works. They are most-needed candidates for recording.

The Hungaroton release also includes a work by Balazs Szunyogh, a Hungarian student of Petrovics and Kurtag who died two years ago while in his mid-40s. His Trio Serenade (1978) for clarinet, cello, and piano is a pleasant piece with quasi-minimalist devices. Its simple surface conceals some subtle intricacies.

MUCZYNSKI Six Preludes, op. 6. Piano Sonata No. 1, op. 9. Suite, op. 13. Sonata for Flute and Piano, op. 14. Toccataop.15. A Summer Journal, op. 19. Piano Sonata No. 2, op. 22 – Robert Muczynski (pn); Julius Baker (fl)– LAUREL LR-862 (67:40)

MUCZYNSKI Seven, op. 30. Six Duos, op. 34. Piano Sonata No. 3, op. 35. Twelve Maverick Pieces, op. 37. Masks, op. 40. Time Pieces, op. 43. Desperate Measures, op. 48 – Robert Muczynski (pn); Julius Baker (fl); Mitchell Lurie (cl) – LAUREL LR-863 (75:08)

MUCZYNSKI Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 25. Fantasy Trio, op. 26. Time Pieces, op. 43. SZUNYOGH Trio Serenade – György Déri (vc); András Horn (cl); Gábor Eckhardt (pn) – HUNGAROTON HCD-31877 (65:30)