A Persichetti Perspective

by Walter Simmons



PERSICHETTIString Quarets Nos.1-4; New Art String Quartet. Available from Department of Music, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85281. 2 LPs, $10. 

This is the kind of recording most composers dream about: beautiful in every aspect, from layout to annotation to performance to sound quality. It is a first-rate, in-depth examination of one of our foremost composers as reflected in his treatment of the string quartet medium over a period of 33 years. 

Vincent Persichetti, now 62, has been associated with the Juilliard School for the past three decades. As a teacher, composer and author of one of the leading textbooks on contemporary harmony, he has revealed a steadfast avoidance of dogma and a concomitant dedication to the development of a 20th century common practice-an amalgamation of the wealth of compositional styles and materials that have emerged into a broad and flexible vocabulary-and this during a period when the music world has been an arena for dozens of different competing, ephemeral, exclusive and seemingly irreconcilable musical styles. 

This catholic approach has spawned a body of work that has touched the lives of thousands of musicians, from beginning piano students to high school band members to specialists in esoteric theory. But as Persichetti’s compositional career may appear as a veritable tour de force of technique while setting an example, so his music has at times been criticized as impersonal, facile, derivative, or academic. However, for the most part, these judgments are the result of an inadequate sampling of pieces. In truth, Persichetti’s musical profile shares something in common with those of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Ravel-composers whose total and effortless mastery of technique served a range of expression on a continuum from exquisite delicacy to joyful exhilaration. In essence, Persichetti is the ultimate neo-classicist, not in the trivial sense to which that concept has degenerated, suggesting the mockery of musical affect, but in its highest, Apollonian sense as one who glories in striving for the apotheosis of musical perfection. I do not mean to suggest that all of Persichetti’s music is of a sanguine character; much of it deals in dramatic conflict. But the range of conflict is within the music rather than within the composer. For those who are familiar with a reasonable sample of Persichetti’s works, these consistencies become apparent. 

The guiding spirit of this recording project was David Cohen, a member of the music faculty at Arizona State University. Cohen is also responsible for the knowledgeable, penetrating and perceptive liner notes. The New Art String Quartet, consisting of Frank Spinosa, Eugene Lombardi, William Magers, and Takayori Atsumi, is also in residence at Arizona State. 

One of the first observations a listener to these quartets might make is that Persichetti’s shift from simple diatonic tonal materials to more complex and angular elements in no way follows a chronological pattern. Both extremes are found in his American Record Guide earliest as well as his most recent music, though they have become more refined in many ways. In fact, the quartet that will probably most ingratiate the listener on first hearing is No. 2. Similar stylistically to the Third Piano Sonata, the work opens with a simple diatonic statement in the Dorian mode. Its consistent modality and open consonances give the piece a distinctly folk-like, “American” flavor. This flavor remains throughout, despite a Grosse Fuge-like finale. 

By contrast, No. 1, which preceded No. 2 by five years, is of a decidedly different nature, and is the only one of the four with which I am less than pleased. The work exemplifies the single weakness that I have observed in Persichetti’s music: an occasional mismatching of idiom to intent. That is, at times the spirit of a piece appears to be in conflict with the materials used, resulting in a dissatisfying ambiguity. (Another case in point is the ambitious Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.) The First Quartet, despite the grim 12-tone row with which it begins and its densely contrapuntal unfolding, is essentially a lightweight piece with much in it that suggests the jocular and lyrical. Yet its unrelievedly abrasive harmonic language undermines and conflicts with this spirit, creating a limp and stilted effect. 

The No. 3 was composed during the 1950’s, a decade of incredible fertility for Persichetti in which he completed four symphonies, five piano sonatas, the hour-long song cycle Harmonium, along with seven shorter cycles, and many more miscellaneous works. Among these are most of those pieces for which. Persichetti is best known. The No. 3 explores an approach shared by his other most successful works of this period, the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, and the Symphony No. 5 for strings. Each of these pursues a thorough exploitation of a single thematic element within a one-movement framework containing many short sections contrasting in tempo and texture. This format is ideally suited to Persichetti’s gifts for uncovering endless possibilities in limited thematic material, for creating a unified stylistic entity from diverse expressive elements, and for generating a fluent and coherent overall design despite many contrasting episodes. In this quartet the severity of the mysterious 12-tone theme with which it opens is fully justified and sustained throughout, though the piece is not composed according to serial procedures. It is a work of endless fascination and prompts numerous re-hearings. 

It is worth noting that despite his use of 12-tone themes, fragmentary textures, and complex non-tonal harmonic structures, Persichetti has never written a serial work, in the Schoenbergian or Webernian sense. However, he does use a personal adaptation of some serial devices to generate harmonic structures. Often the result, as in the monumental Symphony No. 9, “Janiculum”, the Parable IX for band, and the Fourth String Quartet is aurally equivalent to many fully serialized works. Yet in his case the music rarely lapses into sterile intellectualism because of the overriding dramatic impetus that is Persichetti’s primary concern and an always perceptible rhythmic pulse that underlies and clarifies the work’s articulation. 

The No. 4 is the 10th in the series that Persichetti has dubbed Parables. The Parables are one-movement dramatic abstractions, most of which contain references and allusions to his earlier pieces. This particular work is a further extension of the notion of constant flux within a one-movement design. 

The surface quality and the sound quality of these recordings are excellent — quite unusual for a private, noncommercial release. The performers demonstrate a serious commitment to the music through their willingness to fashion really polished, sensitive interpretations; the playing is of a consistently high quality. A great deal of work has obviously gone into this production, and the result is a valuable tribute to a major composer, indispensable to everyone concerned with the contemporary chamber music repertoire. 

Unfortunately, the number of available recordings of Persichetti’s major works has dwindled of late. RCA has recently dropped from its catalogue the extraordinary Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Janiculum, but Persichetti and his wife’s hair-raising rendition of the masterful Concerto for Piano, Four Hands can be obtained from Columbia Special Products, and whatever copies might remain of the Symphony No. 5 can be ordered from the Louisville Orchestra (333 West Broadway; Louisville, Kentucky, 40202). Tape collectors may be able to turn up the excellent recent performance of this work by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ajmone-Marsan; all are warned to avoid the outrageous truncation perpetrated by Giulini and the Chicago Symphony. For those interested in a more accessible side of Persichetti’s music, six of his pieces for band, including what is probably his most popular work, the Symphony No. 6, are available on Coronet S-1247 (Coronet Recording Co., 375 East Broad Street; Columbus, Ohio).