A. TCHEREPNIN Piano Music 1913-61. Sonata No. 1. Sonata No. 2. Quatre Préludes Nostalgiques. Prelude, Op. 85, No. 9. Moment Musical. Petite Suite. Rondo à la Russe. Entretiens. Polka. Scherzo. Expressions. La Quatrième

A. TCHEREPNIN Piano Music 1913-61 ● Alexander Tcherepnin, Mikhail Shilyaev (pns) ● TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC-0079 (79:48)
Sonata No. 1. Sonata No. 2. Quatre Préludes Nostalgiques. Prelude, Op. 85, No. 9. Moment Musical . Petite SuiteRondo à la RusseEntretiensPolka. ScherzoExpressions. La Quatrième

Alexandre Tcherepnin (1899-1977) was a composer and pianist, a significant figure within a multi-generational sequence of composers and musicians. His father, Nikolai (1873-1945), was a composer, conductor, and pianist, who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. His son Serge (b. 1941) has been active as a protagonist of avant-garde and electronic composition. His other son Ivan (1943-1998) pursued similar stylistic interests before his premature demise. Ivan’s son Stefan (b. 1977) is a visual artist, as well as a composer, who has explored a variety of postmodern styles. Ivan’s other son Sergei (b. 1981) is also active in pursuing an avant-garde fusion of multiple artistic media.

Alexandre was a thoroughly cosmopolitan figure. Born in St. Petersburg, he fled with his family to Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1917 to escape the consequences of the Soviet revolution, then moved to Paris four years later, where he associated himself with a number of other expatriate composers, and attempted to launch a career as pianist and composer. Traveling to China and Japan during the 1930s, he met the pianist Lee Hsien Ming, who was to become his (second) wife. During the late 1940s they came to America, settling in Chicago, where he became a distinguished member of the composition faculty at DePaul University. Perhaps his most notable protégés are Robert Muczynski and Phillip Ramey. He moved to New York in 1964, spending the rest of his life traveling back and forth between there and Europe.

Revered by his students, Tcherepnin was a highly sophisticated creative figure, but he seemed never to emerge from the shadows of his more celebrated elder compatriots, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Whether his creative gifts were truly dwarfed by theirs, or whether his relative obscurity was an unjustly unfortunate outcome of a historical quirk is hard to say. But this recent release certainly provides additional data, which is likely to be interpreted by some as supporting one evaluation, and by others as supporting the alternative.

A noteworthy aspect of this recording is that a little less than half of its running time is devoted to recordings made in 1965 that feature the composer himself at the keyboard. Phillip Ramey, then 26, was producing a radio documentary on his former teacher for the Columbia University radio station WKCR. Ramey had persuaded Tcherepnin to record several of his works, including his two piano sonatas, all of which would be featured in the documentary. The recordings were accomplished over the course of one long night, with minimal opportunity for re-takes and editing, engineered by the erstwhile Walter Carlos, before he had achieved celebrity as the creator of “Switched-On Bach.” Although Tcherepnin was to record some of the same music for an EMI release two years later, he himself felt that the WKCR recordings revealed a certain reckless abandon missing from the more cautious commercial release. Although the 45-year-old master tapes required much restorative work, which was executed meticulously by Allen Tucker, the result sounds remarkably free of obvious technical deficiencies. In fact, the transition to the remainder of this Toccata release, featuring an assortment of pieces recorded in London in 2012 by the young Russian pianist Mikhail Shilyaev, is barely noticeable. Many of these shorter pieces have never been recorded before, and embrace most of Tcherepnin’s compositional career.

There is a distinct difference in the characters of the two piano sonatas, as compared with the shorter pieces. The sonatas, composed more than 40 years apart, are decidedly aggressive works. The first, composed in 1918-19, clearly reveals the fingerprints of Prokofiev. Beginning with a powerful introduction, the first movement pursues a muscular fugal development, emphasizing the extremes of the keyboard, before coming to a quiet ending. The second movement begins with repeated major triads, around which an unusual melody is intertwined. This leads directly into a pugnacious Allegro,after which a finale, marked Grave,offers sober reflections on the preceding material. Tcherepnin’s playing is quite strong, perhaps even a little heavy-handed at times.

The Sonata No. 2 is a more concise work, composed within a period of ten days in 1961. It is the latest work to appear on the program. From the outset it proclaims a much freer approach to tonality, along with a higher level of harmonic dissonance and a greater angularity of thematic material. But like its predecessor it is largely emphatic and aggressive, taking the language of Prokofiev into more rarefied and complex territory than the elder composer ever ventured. However, the work ends softly and rather quizzically. Unfortunately, the actual musical result is not always as compelling as its elements might suggest. Throughout much of his creative life, Tcherepnin experimented with synthetic scale-forms as well as a number of rhythmic and textural innovations. But the listener who is unaware of these procedures is not likely to notice anything that deviates significantly from the familiar post-Prokofiev approach to keyboard composition in the mid-20th century. Reflecting on these two sonatas, it occurred to me that if one views Tcherepnin’s more ambitious works as complex extensions of Prokofiev in his most forceful efforts, one might then view Phillip Ramey’s own large and impressive keyboard output (much of which has been recently released on Toccata) as a further extension of the general language pursued by Tcherepnin.

Also on the recording are three collections of tiny recital pieces, each averaging barely a minute, many of them within the grasp of most intermediate-level pianists. Although the influence of both Stravinsky and, especially, Prokofiev are undeniable throughout Tcherepnin’s output, equally—and sometimes more than equally—evident are the fingerprints of Debussy, especially in these shorter pieces. Thus this music illustrates the familiar Franco-Russian aesthetic alliance with unusual clarity. This is especially true of Petite Suite, six pieces composed at the same time as the Sonata No. 1; the third of these, “Berceuse,” is particularly beautiful. Entretiens (or Conversations) comprises ten pieces, written at various points during the 1920s. These embrace some of the exotic modes that intrigued the composer as a result of his explorations of non-Western music. But unlike the sonatas, they display an ingratiating accessibility that points to their utility in a wide range of recital contexts. Much the same may be said about Expressions, another group of ten pieces, composed in 1951. Here Tcherepnin again attempted to integrate his experiments in scale forms and more complex meters with some of the usages derived from folk-styles. But the key word here is “integration”: the listener is much more aware of an overall congeniality of impact than of compositional details.

The remaining short pieces highlight one or another of the concerns discussed in relation to the collections noted above. Four Nostalgic Preludes date from 1922, and are among those pieces recorded by the composer for the radio documentary. They are attractive morsels, the sadly romantic “Con dolore, molto sostenuto” being a particular favorite. The tiny Prelude, Op. 85, No. 9, became one of Tcherepnin’s most popular recital pieces. Moment Musical is notable as the work of a 14-year-old, and offers a rather sophisticated treatment of a very primitive melody. Rondo à la Russe reveals strong traces of Stravinsky. The Polka of 1944 is an encore-type piece, lighter in tone, simpler in conception, and more accessible in language. Cluster chords are used to create a burlesque effect. Scherzo, composed in 1918, before the composer had reached the age of 20, is largely a toccata-like effort in moto perpetuo, interrupted by a more lyrical B-section. It provides an especially clear illustration of the lineage linking Debussy to Prokofiev to Tcherepnin. La Quatrième was composed during the late 1940s, to celebrate the establishment of the Fourth Republic in France. A grand opening statement is followed by polytonal passages, cluster harmony, and even a faint reminiscence of La Marseillaise.

Russian pianist Mikhail Shilyaev is especially effective in embracing Tcherepnin’s own approach to his keyboard music. Program notes by Tcherepnin-specialist Benjamin Folkman are brilliantly informative, and offer penetrating insights. To the listener interested in exploring the composer’s major works, I recommend the budget priced 4-CD set on BIS, which features all four symphonies and six piano concertos, along with some shorter works. 

RAMEY Piano Music, Vol. 4. Incantations. Cossack Variations. Three Early Preludes. Sonata No. 3. Epigrams, Bk. II. Lament for Richard III. Sonata No. 7

RAMEY Piano Music, Vol. 4 ● Stephen Gosling (pn) ● TOCCATA TOCC-0153 (79:18)
Incantations. Cossack Variations. Three Early Preludes. Sonata No. 3. Epigrams, Bk. II. Lament for Richard III. Sonata No. 7

This is the fourth volume of piano music by the American composer Phillip Ramey to be released by Toccata Classics. Having reviewed Volume 3 in the series last year, I will summarize some of the background information from that review. Ramey, now 74, is probably best known for the period when he was a younger member of the inner circle of American composers that included Copland, Thomson, Barber, Schuman, Bernstein, Rorem et al. He has written a good deal about these composers via some very valuable published interviews, and was active as a record annotator during the 1970s, and also as the program annotator for the New York Philharmonic for a number of years. An entertaining raconteur, he has written an autobiography that has yet to be published—a pity, because it is filled with anecdotes that paint portraits of many of the notables indicated above that differ significantly from what can be gleaned from the usual biographical sources.

But what is less well-known—or was until Toccata began issuing these recordings—is that Ramey himself has been composing actively and consistently for more than 50 years. Much of his work has been focused on the piano, an instrument on which he himself developed considerable proficiency. With eight sonatas and numerous short character-pieces, he follows a lineage that can be traced to Chopin, then detoured to Russia via Scriabin and Rachmaninov, followed by Prokofiev, and by Alexander Tcherepnin, Ramey’s beloved mentor. Ramey himself has no Russian ancestry, despite the stylistic pedigree his creative work may suggest.

Ramey’s music may be said to continue where Prokofiev and Tcherepnin left off—a muscular, aggressive style that presents extreme technical challenges, which pianist Stephen Gosling tosses off with the hammer-like ferocity that the music requires. Indeed, Ramey has such a natural affinity for the piano that the instrument becomes a veritable orchestra in his hands. However, unlike that of the late Robert Muczynski (another distinguished protégé of Tcherepnin), Ramey’s music displays an extremely intense level of harmonic dissonance and an almost phobic avoidance of any semblance of what some might call “lyricism,” but what modernists—including Ramey himself—may regard as “sentimentality.” Yet while it carefully avoids the kinds of harmonic inclinations and their fulfillments that typically offer gratification to the listener, much of his music draws upon the gestures, figurations, and rhetoric of his romantic predecessors. At the same time, with few exceptions—notably the Piano Sonata No. 3 that appears on this recording—Ramey adamantly eschews any allegiance to serialism. Thus most of his music inhabits that difficult harmonic region that strongly resists the tensions and resolutions of tonality, while steering clear of the strictures of the 12-tone approach. These distinctions are likely to be lost on most listeners, who—in order to infer the intended character of the utterance—are required to tease out expressive nuances among different, highly dissonant harmonic structures.

Although the music on this recording embraces the full expanse of Ramey’s compositional career, it is clear from the earliest pieces—Three Early Preludes and Incantations—that the direction his creative work was to follow was apparent early on, and he has continued in that vein, broadening and deepening his language as he has matured, as illustrated by this new release and its three predecessors.

Ramey recalls that during the 1960s Aaron Copland chided him for his allegiance to the “Tcherepnin-Prokofiev-Bartók axis,” and encouraged him to explore the broader possibilities offered by the then-widely-embraced serial approach, which Copland himself had found to be fruitful. One of the results of Ramey’s experiments along these lines was his 1968 Piano Sonata No. 3. As Ramey himself states, “It is a willfully discordant, anti-melodic composition …” Although Copland was reportedly enthusiastic about it, the pianist for whom it was intended refused to play it, and Ramey, convinced that the work was a misguided effort, “put the score away and never showed it to another pianist.” It was only through the cogent persuasion of Benjamin Folkman, the musicologist who is probably the primary authority on Ramey’s music, and the writer of the enormously knowledgeable and insightful program notes that accompany the recording, that the composer was moved to reconsider the Sonata No. 3. Undertaking a revision in 2010, Ramey did a good deal of ruthless pruning, finally arriving at what he felt was an improvement worth preserving. Despite its use of serial procedures, the piece is not likely to strike most listeners as notably different in its impact from the composer’s other major works. The third movement, marked “Allegro demonico,” offers very much the sort of Prokofievian keyboard-pummeling that Ramey seems to love to write. And the work ends with an unmistakable tonal cadence.

During the 1980s Ramey composed his Cossack Variations: 13 variations on a tune he had discovered on a postcard during a trip to Russia. In keeping with the romantic approach to this form, the theme is readily apparent during the early variations, but becomes increasingly fragmented and camouflaged as they proceed. But despite the traditional formal approach, the character of the variations remains consistent with Ramey’s style and language.

In 1967 Ramey had begun his exploration of serialism with a book of Epigrams. In 1986 he returned to the aphoristic approach with nine additional pieces, comprising a second book of Epigrams. Each piece, averaging less than two minutes in duration, attempts to evoke a particular expressive attitude. As with the other music on the disc, most of these pieces are quite virtuosic and highly challenging for the performer, while their consistently dissonant language makes discerning the explicitly identified character of each piece quite difficult for the listener.

Ramey composed the Lament for Richard III in 2001, after immersing himself in the play, in a variety of related commentaries, and in a number of productions of Shakespeare’s work. An attempt at a character study of the monstrous ruler, the six-minute piece paints a grim portrait. But here Ramey’s consistently harsh approach lacks nuance, so that the character seems to undergo a clubbing, rather than an evocation or elucidation.

Ramey’s Piano Sonata No. 7 was completed in 2011. An ambitious work in three movements comprising 17 minutes in duration, it is only a little less strident harmonically than most of the music presented on this disc. Nevertheless, I find it to be the composer’s most convincing and personal work, of those known to me. It embraces a musical language of considerably greater breadth than most of his earlier compositions, allowing for a more multidimensional expression, enhanced by the kind of nuance I found lacking in the Richard III piece noted above.

Ramey is most fortunate in having a commentator of Folkman’s caliber to discuss his music in some depth, and in having a pianist whose renditions he can endorse as “absolute perfection.” Therefore one can state confidently that this release, along with its predecessors, make the best possible case for Phillip Ramey as a composer of considerable stature.


PERSICHETTI Harmonium ● Sherry Overholt (sop); Joshua Pierce (pn) ● MSR CLASSICS MS-1432 (60:17)

Persichetti composed Harmonium—a cycle of 20 songs set to poems selected from Wallace Stevens’s eponymous 1923 collection—in 1951. It was the most ambitious work the 36-year-old composer had written up to that time, and it stands today as one of the landmarks of his compositional career. Persichetti was extremely sensitive to poetry: consider that he wrote three volumes of Poems for Piano, each short piece inspired by a single line of verse. The composer’s attraction to the works of Stevens is not surprising, as the poet’s economy of means, his ability to express the most serious thoughts with a light touch, and the elusiveness he achieved through oblique and paradoxical references are traits that apply with equal accuracy to Persichetti’s creative work. As he himself expressed it, “I have always loved Wallace Stevens’ poetry, probably because he will state facts in the opposite direction in order to make a truth in another direction.” Stevens’s lines, “The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully,” might almost have been written by Persichetti himself. Unfortunately, Stevens died before he could hear a performance of the composer’s settings of his work.

As a result of this affinity between poet and composer, Stevens’s words and Persichetti’s music are wedded with virtually no distortion or accommodation. The songs abound, as do the poems, with subtle interrelationships; some songs offer relief, while others serve important structural functions as points of summation. On the whole, the textures of the piano part are remarkably spare and uncomplicated, yet are of the utmost importance. The melodic lines, too, are generally straightforward, although the treatment of tonality varies between angular atonality and diatonic simplicity; many of the songs do exhibit the wide leaps, attenuated tonal anchorage, and dissonant accompaniments that typically alienate more traditionally-minded music-lovers. One cannot deny that some degree of effort is required in tuning in to its mode of expression. Nevertheless, listeners familiar with Persichetti’s music will readily identify his familiar stylistic features. But, as with so many of this composer’s most challenging works, those listeners patient enough to familiarize themselves with the music will find many of the sparse textures and angular melodic lines gradually suggesting more mellifluous implications, which the imagination supplies intuitively, finally revealing a coherent artistic conception within which all the details fall into place. As I continue to listen to the cycle, I am still finding new felicities. But the true complexity of the work lies in the relationships among the songs, and in the connections between the poems and the music.

The first song, “Valley Candle,” introduces most of the musical motifs of the entire cycle. This and the six songs that follow comprise the first sub-group. These songs grow out of one another, each focusing on elements from the previous ones. The eighth song, “Six Significant Landscapes,” serves as a kind of cumulative consolidation of the first seven, while launching the sub-group to follow. They proceed in a fashion similar to the first sub-group. The seventeenth song, “Domination of Black,” is a passacaglia on a twelve-note theme, and is another point of cumulative consolidation. The final song, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” is by far the longest and most involved of the songs, occupying more than 20% of the total duration of the cycle. A compositional tour de force, this song is a summary of the entire work, integrating musical material from all the preceding songs.

Though touting itself as a “World Premiere Recording,” this is not technically true, although its predecessor was so obscure that it is almost not worth mentioning. But in the interests of historical accuracy, in 1979 Arizona State University released a handsome LP set featuring Harmonium, as sung by soprano Darleen Kliewer, with Lois McLeod, piano—both erstwhile Arizona State faculty members. That two-LP set also included an excellent performance of Persichetti’s Piano Quintet, with the composer as pianist—still the only recording of this chamber music masterpiece. (I have written to the Arizona State music department to look into a CD-reissue of this set, but never received so much as an acknowledgment.)

Perhaps it is illuminating to compare Harmonium with the Hermit Songs, composed just two years after the Persichetti, by Samuel Barber, probably the most beloved composer of American art songs. In the minds of many listeners, the two composers share a similar spot within the multidimensional matrix of American composition in the 20th century. What Harmonium lacks is the direct melodic immediacy of songs like “St. Ita’s Vision” and “Crucifixion,” which go directly to the heart—and this may indeed be a “deal-breaker” for listeners with more conservative tastes. But Harmonium is not about beautiful melodies; yet the work projects such scope, such breadth, and such wealth of significant detail, that full comprehension of it is a virtually endless process, though one that becomes increasingly rewarding, the deeper into it one delves.

For all the foregoing reasons it is indeed painful to raise one caveat about this recording, which I must do in the interests of impartiality, although I’d like to encourage readers to take the plunge anyway. The fact is that soprano Sherry Overholt does not provide an ideal rendition of the cycle. She is fine in the less demanding, more subdued settings. But in the more difficult songs, with wide leaps and more strenuous dynamics, her voice reflects duress, becoming strident and somewhat unpleasant. Rhythms and pitches are not always precisely accurate. To be sure, the demands of this cycle—with regard to intelligent musicianship as well as sheer vocal agility and beauty of tone—are great. There are not many sopranos capable of truly mastering it, and Overholt is to be congratulated for even taking on such a challenge. But in comparing it with that Arizona performance, I would have to say that Darleen Kliewer is a little more successful in negotiating its challenges. On the other hand, pianist Joshua Pierce is an experienced veteran in meeting the demands of 20th-century American music, from Nicolas Flagello to John Cage. He has a long history of involvement with the music of Persichetti, and he projects the details of his contribution with ease and aplomb—and far more effectively than the pianist on the Arizona recording. In this work the piano is an equal partner, not an accompaniment, and its importance is acknowledged by its prominence in the recording balance. In fact, I suspect that listeners new to the work will find themselves “grabbed” by some of the piano parts before they are captivated by the vocal lines.

In any event, this new release—like the New World Records set, released in 2008, featuring Geoffrey Burleson’s stupendous performances of all twelve of the composer’s piano sonatas—is a milestone in the history of American music on recordings. I would go so far as to assert that Harmoniumis arguably the greatest American song cycle.


AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC ● James Morrow, cond; Univ. of Texas Chamber Singers ● NAXOS 8.559358 (73:15)
PERSICHETTI Mass. SCHUMAN Carols of Death. BOLCOM The Mask. I. FINE The Hour-Glass. FOSS Psalms

This appears to be the second CD Naxos has released that features the University of Texas Chamber Singers, under the sensitive and expert direction of James Morrow, in meticulously performed and recorded selections of American choral music. Those who find the program listed above appealing are not likely to be disappointed, except by the fact that no texts are included. With the exception of one outlier—William Bolcom’s The Mask from 1990—the music included all dates from the years 1949-1960—perhaps the most fertile period for American traditionalist composers.

Vincent Persichetti is represented by his a cappella Mass from 1960, ushering in a decade of concentration by the composer on choral music, both sacred and secular. Although his catalog of sacred music is substantial, I have always found this portion of his output to be remarkably cool and dry—somewhat lacking in spiritual fervor, as it usually expressed musically, although some may disagree. His setting of the Mass is, in many ways, a highly traditional work, its Renaissance heritage reflected in the use of a Gregorian chant, Kyrie Deus Sempiterne, as a cantus firmus that underlies each section, and in its reliance on imitative counterpoint as its chief developmental technique. There are no time signatures, and the irregular, constantly changing phrase-lengths further reinforce the Gregorian connection. Yet the work does not inspire the sense of rapture that the composer’s 16th-century antecedents strove to achieve. The Phrygian implications of the Gregorian theme give the work a generally dark color and the extensive use of quartal harmony contributes to the reserved coolness of mood. Modal consistency is dispelled by considerable chromaticism, especially in the inner voices, making harmonic clarity difficult for even a highly proficient choir to achieve, although Morrow’s Texans accomplish this most effectively, for the most part. A general tone of detached introspection is maintained until the final Agnus Dei, an ardent plea for peace that rises to moments of plaintive passion.

Persichetti’s Mass was included on an all-Persichetti choral disc featuring the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, conducted by the composer’s advocate and friend Tamara Brooks. This recording was released by New World (80316-2) in 1983 (for which I provided the program notes). Those performances were fine, but this recent recording displays more harmonic clarity and a greater sense of expressive vitality.

William Schuman’s Carols of Death, featuring a cappella settings of three Walt Whitman poems, is his best-known and most widely performed choral work. Composed in 1958, the settings comprise “The Last Invocation,” “The Unknown Region,” and “To All, To Each”—poems that have inspired settings by a number of composers. In view of the composer’s statement, expressed late in life, that “I am not and have never been morbid about death. I always think that death is one branch of life,” it is illuminating to observe his sober confrontation with Whitman’s reflections on the subject, from the perspective of the 48-year-old composer.

The three movements are largely slow and somber in character, capturing the profound sense of mystery and awe evoked by Whitman. The first setting is quite grim, and is largely limited to two-voice counterpoint, doubled at the octave, with many open fourths and fifths, which evoke a somewhat archaic flavor. The setting is largely block-like and syllabic, so that the counterpoint is controlled vertically, with limited rhythmic independence of the voices. The first portion of the second section moves quickly, and is decidedly jazzy, displaying some of the intricate rhythmic interplays commonly found in Schuman’s fast music. In fact, there is a phrase or two of that section that would not be out of place in his dramatically different cantata based on Casey at the Bat. This is the most musically interesting setting of the three. The third poem, which begins, “Come lovely and soothing death,” offers some comfort. The largely syllabic settings facilitate the aural comprehension of the text, which was obviously important to the composer.

In 1965 a recording of Carols of Death in a superb performance by the Gregg Smith Singers was released on an Everest LP (3129), never re-issued on compact disc. The rendition provided by the Texans on this recent recording is excellent, although the Smith performance is a little more agile in passages of rhythmic intricacy.

Irving Fine’s settings of six poems by the Elizabethan poet Ben Jonson were composed in 1949 for mixed voices a cappella, making them the earliest pieces on the disc. They are also perhaps the most delightful and clever. Several of the settings pit a small group of soloists against the larger ensemble, in a choral adaptation of the concerto grosso principle. Like most of Fine’s music, these settings are neo-classical in style, applied here to choral music. They are entertaining, sensitive, and, at times, beautiful. The performances here are excellent.

The late Lukas Foss was another exponent of American neo-classicism—at least during the 1940s and 50s; he tended to change compositional styles with the shifts of musical fashion. His pieces from this period comprise some of his most appealing music. Psalms, in three sections, was composed in 1956. Although most effective in its full orchestral version, the work is represented here in an adaptation for two pianos, rendered ably by Dwight Bigler and Alena Gorina.

From my perspective the most striking aspect of this work is the fact that the second—and largest—section bears an unmistakable resemblance to Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, composed in 1965. Foss may have been a bandwagon-jumper, but Bernstein was a shameless “borrower.” In fact, although I tend to avoid accusations of musical appropriation in general, Bernstein engaged in this practice so frequently and so blatantly that many of his works provide the most vivid examples one can find. Further complicating the issue is the fact that in almost every case, Bernstein’s “approximations” are far more colorful, appealing, and successful with listeners than his sources. Foss’s Psalms provide an excellent case in point: Is there any question as to where his piece stands, in relation to the Chichester Psalms? Foss’s psalm settings are effective, but they pale in comparison to Bernstein’s.

As noted earlier, William Bolcom’s The Mask is cut from somewhat different cloth than the other works on the program. Written at the suggestion of the black pianist Natalie Hinderas, this is an ambitious work in six sections, five of which set texts by black poets dealing with hidden identity. The fifth movement is a jazzy piano solo entitled, “Interlude for Natalie.” Bolcom’s settings exemplify his celebrated eclecticism, drawing upon a wide array of styles, while generally remaining toward the more serious, even somber, end of his expressive pallete, despite a foray or two into ragtime. On the whole it is an engaging and often clever cycle, the longest piece on the program.

In summary, the disc is highly recommended to those who are attracted to this program and don’t have other fine recordings of the music. 

MORAVEC Northern Lights Electric. Clarinet Concerto1. Sempre Diritto! Montserrat—Cello Concerto

MORAVEC  Northern Lights Electric. Clarinet Concerto1. Sempre Diritto! Montserrat—Cello Concerto ● Gil Rose, cond; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; David Krakauer (cl); Matt Heimovitz (vc) ● BMOP 1024 (70:42)

It’s almost a decade since American composer Paul Moravec won the Pulitzer Prize, and throughout the intervening years a fair number of recordings of his music have appeared, most receiving rave or near-rave reviews in these pages (and not only from me—see Fanfare archive). However, some readers may be surprised to learn that there are many out there who are interested only in orchestral music, and pass by recordings of vocal, chamber, or solo piano music regardless of how highly it is praised. For those listeners who have been holding off on Moravec until they have the opportunity to dig into some substantial orchestral works, this new release is the one they’ve been waiting for. Here are two orchestral works of moderate length and two full-length concertos—and, performed with both proficiency and conviction, all four provide highly rewarding listening experiences.

Moravec’s music is typically notable for its busy textures, produced by generous use of tremolos and similar figurations, combined with soaring melodies—lyrical, but without obvious tonal centers, accompanied by consonant, triadic harmony also free of tonal obligations. As suggested by that description, the result often suggests an updated Bohuslav Martinu, evoking a similar sense of passionate exhilaration. For example, Northern Lights Electric was written as an octet in 1992, but was expanded to full orchestral proportions in 2000. Supposedly inspired by a viewing of the Aurora Borealis and an attempt to provide an aural analogue to the experience, the piece impresses me as one of Moravec’s most fully realized works, engrossing and delightful throughout its 12-minute duration.

Sempre Diritto! is another very satisfying work. It takes its title (“straight ahead”) from the street directions often given by Italians to tourists. Composed in 1992, it begins slowly, with rather austere, chromatic, neoclassical counterpoint along the lines of David Diamond or Quincy Porter. Although obvious tonal centers are avoided, dissonance/consonance resolutions are not absent. Gradually the music builds in intensity and the tempo quickens via diminution of rhythmic values, until it launches off into the composer’s characteristic flight of agitated motion, above which soar lyrical melodies, creating a kind of exuberance slightly reminiscent of Carl Nielsen. Eventually the work comes to a conclusion whose tonality is emphatic and unequivocal. In his notes to this work, scored for chamber orchestra, Moravec acknowledges the influence of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, although my own reaction was that this was the first Moravec piece I’d heard that sounded as though it might have been composed sometime around 1955-60 (not that there’s anything wrong with this).

Montserrat is a full-length cello concerto in one multi-sectional movement, composed in 2001 in homage to Pablo Casals. The work seems to evolve spontaneously, but while it may create a rhapsodic impression, it is all based on a short motif heard at the beginning. It is especially beautiful—lush and melodious, with that feeling of exultation that is never far away in a Moravec work. Matt Haimovitz plays the solo role with impeccable precision and expressive conviction. This would be an engaging point of entry for a listener not yet acquainted with the composer’s music.

Moravec’s Clarinet Concerto (2008) is more conventional in its formal outlines: three movements, the outer ones more lively, flanking a very soulful, deeply reflective slow movement. The work was written for clarinetist David Krakauer, who has played and recorded the composer’s music before. The first movement balances active, busy material with more lyrical elements, in a manner that suggests sonata-allegro form. Despite the solemnity of the slow movement, the finale returns to Moravec’s familiar evocation of triumphant jubilation. My only quibble is that I found Krakauer’s tone a little crude at times, with a vibrato that pulls too strongly on intonation.

Now is the time for my one major gripe—and it isn’t really all that “major”—one that I’ve raised before with reference to other composers: It seems to me that as part of the “new accessibility” of which we have been the beneficiaries for the past 25 years or so, composers have (sensibly) renounced the dehumanized kinds of titles foisted upon us by the New Music community during the period of “High Modernism”: SynchronismsRelata IIStructures—you know the sort of thing. That was a time when extramusical associations or references were anathema—a contemptible slippery slope that slid perilously close to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Fine. So now we find composers willing to use extramusical references in their titles, and to relate those associations to the music at hand. The trouble is, I have been finding most of these picturesque explanations and references to be largely irrelevant, useless, and—worse—distracting, prompting directions of thought that are not borne out by the music to any extent. This is not true in every case, and I’m careful to pick on only those with whom I have had this experience. But in the case of Moravec, Northern Light Electric is a fantastic piece—but as a musical corollary to the Aurora Borealis, … maybe that’s what was in the composer’s mind, but I don’t think it enhances the listener’s experience one iota. And the same is true for Sempre Diritto!, an expression that has no bearing on an otherwise delightful piece. This is something composers just might consider—what about titles like Orchestral Fantasy or Concert Overture?There’s nothing wrong with them; but unless the composer really expects the listener to follow some sort of a program, such specific references can interfere with the spontaneous absorption of the musical experience. Having said that, I will just add that the visual image that occurs to me throughout much of Moravec’s music is that of a gas-filled balloon gradually ascending into the sky, its passengers drifting over the land below in ecstatic exhilaration.

Highly recommended as a point of entry for those who have yet to discover the music of Paul Moravec.

BARBER String Quartet (inc. original finale). Serenade. Dover Beach . HANSON String Quartet. Concerto da Camera . R. THOMPSON Alleluia (trans. Ying Qt)

BARBER String Quartet (inc. original finale). Serenade. Dover Beach . HANSON String Quartet. Concerto da Camera . R. THOMPSON Alleluia (trans. Ying Qt) ● Ying St Qt; Randall Scarlata (bar) Adam Neiman (pn) ● SONO LUMINUS DSL-92166 (74:02) [Package includes Blu-ray surround sound audio disc in addition to standard CD]

This is the latest release from the remarkable Ying Quartet. As indicated in the headnote above, the package consists of not only a standard compact disc, but also a Blu-ray surround sound audio disc (the latter of which, unfortunately, I am not equipped to sample). Let me say at the outset that the sound quality of the conventional CD is extraordinarily full, rich, and clear.

The program of this new release comprises music by three American neo-romantic composers not generally known for their chamber music. That makes this rather unusual among string quartet recordings. In truth, all three composers are “old school” romantics, in that rather than impressing the listener with formal felicities and ingenuities, the music’s appeal relies chiefly on the sheer lovability of its material, while structural matters often fall by the wayside. Thus one must admit that this recording displays both Barber’s and Hanson’s formal weaknesses, although listeners who are sympathetic to their expressive objectives may be able to overlook such shortcomings.

Samuel Barber is represented here by three works: his early Serenade, Op. 1, performed regularly either as a string quartet or in a version for string orchestra; Dover Beach, Op. 3, which I consider to be Barber’s first truly great work; and the ever-popular String Quartet, Op. 11, in its final form, while also including the original third movement he had written for the work, but dropped several years later, in favor of the short recapitulation of the first movement with which he replaced it.

Barber composed the brief 8-minute Serenade when he was 18, and still a student at the Curtis Institute. It is a pale and moody piece, largely reflective in tone, with a central movement that almost calls early Berg to mind. But the final movement is a minuet whose material is rather trivial, resulting in a flimsy overall impression. But the performance by the Ying Quartet is as refined and impeccable as anyone might wish.

Barber composed his setting of Matthew Arnold’s well-known poem Dover Beach in 1931, when he was 21. The text clearly prompted a deeply sympathetic response from the composer, as its anxious, pessimistic view of the unknown future reverberated with his own melancholy temperament. The first recording of the work, made in 1935, featured the composer himself as baritone soloist with the Curtis String Quartet. That recording, still in print from various sources, is irreplaceable both for its historical significance and for its sensitivity and authenticity as a performance. However, there have been a number of fine modern recordings as well. This latest is one of them. Baritone Randall Scarlata has impressed me in the past, and his performance here is exquisite, although the mixing of the recording integrates the voice within the quartet, which makes the text hard to distinguish by ear alone.

The String Quartet has, of course, achieved the status of a “classic,” largely owing to the ubiquitous and widely-beloved slow movement, which, in its transcription for string orchestra, is known as the Adagio for Strings. The Yings do a beautiful job with this movement, moving it along with a duration of 6:52, which effectively mitigates the excessively lachrymose impression that it typically creates when milked for all it’s worth in the elegiac role that has become its fate. The first movement exemplifies Barber’s difficulties in generating a graceful, coherent musical form without the support of a text. Here is a clear case of irresistible material “covering” for a sequence of largely unrelated episodes, awkwardly strung together. Originally, Barber composed a finale of comparable duration to the previous movements, and the Quartet was performed in this form for several years. But the composer was never satisfied with this movement, although many others were quite happy with it. Finally, in 1938, Barber chucked the third movement, and substituted a 2-minute recapitulation of the first movement material, odd as that may be. But that has remained the final form of the quartet. But the Yings offer us the rare opportunity of hearing the original third movement, and—thanks to the programming capabilities of CD players—of hearing the entire quartet in either its original or revised form. For those who have wondered what that original finale was like, this provides an informative option. But though the movement is certainly competent and might have served its original function adequately, it would have diluted the work’s emotional intensity and dissipated much of the impact of the work as a whole.

Although Howard Hanson is often viewed as a narrow-minded reactionary, he was quite the precocious genius in his youth, earning his Bachelor’s Degree at barely 20, and joining the faculty at the College of the Pacific in San Jose, California, immediately upon graduation. There he was appointed Dean of the Conservatory of Fine Arts at the age of 22. The two works by which he is represented here exhibit even more obviously than does the Barber quartet the romantic tendency to favor episodic sequences dominated by mood and emotion over clear, concise structures. Hanson’s Concerto da Camera for piano and string quartet was composed in 1917, during his first year in San Jose. In one single movement, it is a 15-minute work that reflects a French–flavored hyperchromaticism—lush, passionate, rhapsodic, and dark-hued, with plenty of heart-throbbing appoggiaturas. Hanson’s ethos was always dominated by his strong religious feelings, and this work bears an inscription on the title page, “Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes O Thou that dwellest in the heavens,” a quotation that he requested appear on any program where the piece was performed. Yet I detect no connection between the music and this quotation, nor is there more than a vague suggestion of the mature Hanson style, aside from its characteristic richness of sonority, transparency of texture, and looseness of structure. A key motivic element is the “theme of youth” upon which Hanson built his Fantasy Variations some 35 years later. With its pan-European post-romanticism, it will certainly appeal to those listeners who have been enjoying the recent MSR recording of Vittorio Giannini’s Piano Quintet. There is another recording of the Concerto da Camera on Albany (TROY129), which features pianist Brian Preston with the Meliora Quartet. That is a perfectly adequate performance, but this new rendition by the Yings with pianist Adam Neiman displays more confidence and conviction, lending the work a greater sense of aesthetic weight than it conveys on the earlier recording. It is indeed rare for a work this obscure to inspire such a polished performance (although the aforementioned Giannini Quintet is another such example).

Hanson composed his sole String Quartet in 1923, while enjoying a European sojourn as the first American recipient of the Prix de Rome; this was around the same time the he wrote his Symphony No. 1, “Nordic.” Although the focus on abstract formal matters associated with the string quartet genre may seem diametrically opposed to the Hanson aesthetic, this somewhat strange work reveals most of the composer’s characteristic traits in abundance. The one-movement quartet is really a series of attitudes or emotional states—passages of stern oratory, visceral rhythmic ostinatos, fervent spiritual rapture, and warm affirmation—that follow one another, connected by awkward transitions, without any apparent meaningful logic, although there is some semblance of motivic development. But there is little counterpoint, and what there is is quite rudimentary. But loyal admirers of the composer’s music will find what they are looking for in what is probably the most polished and committed performance the work has ever had.

Along the lines of an encore, the Ying Quartet concludes this unusual program with their own transcription for string quartet of the Alleluia by Randall Thompson. Originally written for chorus, this short piece is probably the composer’s most popular and widely performed composition, evoking much the same sort of heartfelt exultation that one finds in the music of Hanson. It is lovely in this transcription.

This is a remarkable new release that will delight enthusiasts of American neo-romanticism.

American Classics. BARBER Piano Sonata. COPLAND Piano Variations. GRIFFES Roman Sketches. WEBER Fantasia

BARBER Piano Sonata. COPLAND Piano Variations. GRIFFES Roman Sketches. WEBER Fantasia

From the photos accompanying this CD, Lori Sims appears to be a rather young pianist. Her bio notes that she was born in Colorado, and now holds a special chair on the faculty of Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo. Yet this new release was recorded in South Africa, and is a product of Austria. Strange. However, one point is clear: Sims is quite an extraordinary pianist, as she demonstrates in this program of landmark works from the American piano repertoire of the first half of the 20th century. In truth, each of these pieces is already represented in superb recorded performances, most on composer-centered compendiums. However, for the collector interested in sampling just these works, this recording is close to ideal, boasting sound quality that is exceedingly vivid, in addition to the pianist’s extraordinary technical and interpretive musicianship.

The Piano Sonata by Samuel Barber is probably the most popular and most often-performed American representative of its genre. It doesn’t really merit such primacy over any number of other equally (or even more) fully realized sonatas, but it is certainly a finely wrought, exciting, and satisfying work. Despite recorded performances by many leading pianists—most notably Vladimir Horowitz, for whom the sonata was commissioned and who gave the premiere—it is only recently that pianists have grasped its expressive dynamics to the point where they perform the work convincingly. Most recently I offered extravagant praise to the English pianist Leon McCawley whose brilliant all-Barber recording on Somm impressed me greatly. I cited him as one of the few pianists able to master the interpretive challenges of this work. Therefore I am surprised to have much the same reaction to Sims’s performance only about a year later. In fact, I would go so far as to say that she exceeds McCawley in rendering the work with tremendous physical, dynamic, and intellectual power. Her traversal of the first movement—the most difficult movement to project effectively—is extraordinary in highlighting the ever-present half-step motif, even when embedded within a complex and busy texture. Sims has a remarkable ability to delineate different textural layers with particular clarity. (I’d love to hear her play Scriabin.) And her mastery of the technically challenging finale is as great as any I have heard. My only criticism of her performance is that perhaps it becomes a little too histrionic at dramatic highpoints.

At the opposite end of the pianistic spectrum from the Barber are Aaron Copland’s path-breaking Piano Variations of 1930. In this work Copland essentially renounced the acoustical principles on which the entire mainstream piano repertoire of Chopin and Liszt through Rachmaninov is predicated: harnessing the reverberation produced by the overtone series. In building a work around spare textures, dissonant intervals, and non-tertian harmony, Copland created a sort of anti-piano sonority that ultimately opened the gate for a wholly different approach to the instrument. In fact, one might say that it is Barber’s venturing a toe into this approach in the first movement of his sonata, but without going the whole way, that makes that movement so difficult to bring off. The Piano Variations begin by impertinently stating the angular, chromatic theme in pugnacious single notes; the casual listener might even mistake it for a 12-tone theme. However, as the variations unfold in a continuous fashion, the theme is always clearly discernible, and the sense of tonality is never in question, making for a very accessible piece, once one has adjusted to its non-triadic language. Once again, Sims’s performance is impeccable, highlighting all the aspects of its musicality while fully embracing the hard-edged sonorities.

Sims also features the Roman Sketches composed by Charles Tomlinson Griffes between 1910 and 1915. Griffes, like Lili Boulanger and Guillaume Lekeu, was one of those composers whose short lives prevented them from leaving posterity with more than a taste of what their talent might have achieved had they lived more normal lifespans. In these four attractive “tone poems” for piano (two of which were orchestrated most effectively) the composer was still under the strong influence of Debussy. Again, Sims performs these pieces beautifully and idiomatically, although I cannot suppress my disappointment that she didn’t choose instead to record the composer’s piano sonata, an excellent work that represents him via a more independent and original compositional voice. I can’t imagine why she would have chosen these pleasant but derivative pieces over what was probably Griffes’s masterpiece.

Ben Weber (1916-79) was, along with Roger Sessions, one of the first American composers to embrace the 12-tone approach, but like so many others, he adapted it to his own purposes. Although he received some encouragement from Arnold Schoenberg, he was largely self-taught as a composer. Even shorter in duration than the Copland, his Fantasia dates from 1946, making it a few years older than the Barber. While avoiding a clear sense of tonality until the end, the work is grandly romantic in gesture and mood, somewhat reminiscent of the Berg Sonata, Op. 1. In fact, I would recommend Weber’s piece to any listener fond of the Berg. The Weber has been recorded handsomely by Stephen Hough, although Sims is no less effective in making a coherent statement of the work, despite moments when a certain hardness or harshness afflicts her tone quality. This is a piece that warrants a good deal more attention than it has received during the nearly 70 years of its existence.

I must end this largely enthusiastic review with one complaint concerning the program notes by Barry Ross. Though he makes a few telling points, his essay begins, “What makes American music ‘American’?” For the past 40 years I have been reading program notes accompanying recordings of American music that hinge on that unbelievably fatuous question. Why is anybody still asking this question? Can you imagine a recording of 19th-century French piano music, with notes that begin, “What makes French music ‘French’?” Or a program of arias from Italian operas with notes that begin, “What makes Italian opera ‘Italian’?” As is patently obvious—and has been stated by countless commentators—American music is music composed by Americans. Why do program annotators find this notion so difficult to grasp? Is it the only premise that occurs to them? In spite of that, this is a marvelous recording, highly recommended to those looking for a varied program of distinguished American piano music. Lori Sims is as convincing in this repertoire as any pianist I have heard. I’d love to hear a “Volume II.”    

AND IF THE SONG BE WORTH A SMILE: Songs of American Composers. Songs by Bolcom, Getty, Heggie, Garner, Corigliano, Woolf.

AND IF THE SONG BE WORTH A SMILE: Songs of American Composers ● Lisa Delan (sop); Kristin Pankonin (pn); Susanne Mentzer (mez)1; Matt Haimovitz (vc) ● PENTATONE PTC-5186 099 
BOLCOM Four Cabaret Songs. GETTY Poor Peter. HEGGIE My true love hath my heart. Three Folk Songs. GARNER Annettes-Lieder. CORIGLIANO Two Cabaret Songs. L. P. WOOLF Odas de Todo el Mundo

Lately I have seen quite a few new CDs focused on the 20th- and 21st-century art song. This is a huge repertoire, and increasing all the time, as tonally-oriented neo-romantics seem more comfortable with continuing the lineage of song composers like Barber and Rorem than they seem to be with writing symphonies. Of course, depending on the characteristics of the singer, as well as on the particular program chosen, these CDs vary widely in quality. But I have no hesitation in singling out this recent release as worthy of attention from those who are inclined toward this area of the repertoire. The program embraces a number of different styles, and the music ranges from OK to very good, with the majority leaning toward the latter end of the continuum. But especially fine and worthy of attention is the vocal artistry of the American soprano Lisa Delan. Not only does she have an extremely attractive voice, displaying remarkable agility and musical precision, but she imbues her renditions with tremendous personality, which is utilized generously in much of the music included here. And not only that, but she favors contemporary music (though not exclusively). Hearing her handle this program with such aplomb, I long to hear her bring to life some of the other neglected gems of the American art-song repertoire.

My favorite item on this recording is the group of three Annettes-Lieder, by David Garner, which represents my first acquaintance with this composer. I accept the responsibility for this prior ignorance, as Garner, who is almost 60, and has been on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory for many years, and has amassed an impressive output. Settings composed in 1986 of poetry by the German contemporary of Schubert, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Garner’s three songs stand apart from the rest of the program in their seriousness of expression. These are very beautiful songs, largely somber in cast, and are performed impeccably by Delan, with the excellent support of Matt Haimovitz, cellist, and Kristin Pankonin, pianist.

Another new discovery for me is Luna Pearl Woolf, 40-year-old wife of cellist Haimovitz, and a distinguished composer in her own right. Her Odes de Todo el Mundo (“Odes for Everyone”), commissioned by Delan and composed in 2006, is a setting of a poem by Pablo Neruda. Starting with an almost flamenco flavor, the setting is more a dramatic monologue than a “song,” as it effectively moves in a variety of musical directions, in its attempt to capture the poet’s almost boastful exuberance in his own universality. The 10-minute work provides an excellent opportunity for soprano Delan to display the range of her versatile musical personality.

William Bolcom’s Four Cabaret Songs were composed between 1977 and 1985, to extremely clever and witty texts by Arnold Weinstein. Bolcom’s music, in its more semi-vernacular but highly sophisticated vein, is ideally suited to the texts, and the songs are ideally suited to Delan’s musical personality and vocal gifts, resulting in some great fun.

Even more appealing along these lines are John Corigliano’s Two Cabaret Songs, set to extremely clever and satirical texts by his partner Mark Adamo, also a composer of some note. Written for William Bolcom and Joan Morris, the first, “Dodecaphonia,” dates from 1997. Conjuring a character known as “Twelve-Tone Rose,” the song pokes some fun at serialism, with a final jab at minimalism. Not only is the poetry clever, but Corigliano’s music is as well, enriched by serialist in-jokes. On top of it all, it is so catchy, I found it running through my mind for days. The second song, “Marvelous Invention,” was composed four years later, and is not quite as effective. This one pokes fun at a shallow dilletante’s enthusiasm for the latest portable listening device. It too is filled with musical and verbal in-jokes that sometimes call the songs of Tom Lehrer to mind, but I fear that its meaning will be indecipherable 25 years from now. Again, Lisa Delan makes the most of these witty morsels.

I have not been terribly impressed by the music I’ve heard by Gordon Getty. Though I have no problem with his brazen musical conservatism, I find his work too complacent in inhabiting the styles of the past, with the result that a strong individual personality fails to emerge. Poor Peter, set to three texts by the composer himself, and written for Delan, are a modern romantic evocation of the world of “Merrie Olde England.” These songs are more effective than much of Getty’s music that I’ve heard, although I could have done without the foot-stomping in the second song.

Finally, we come to the offerings of Jake Heggie. His 1996 setting of Sir Philip Sydney’s “My true love hath my heart,” which features the full complement of the album’s personnel, is an effective example of the post-Barber art song. His 1994 settings of three American folksongs are tasteful but unmemorable.

The recording seems to have been produced by Polyhymnia, a Dutch company that aims to achieve the highest levels of recording quality. I am extremely impressed by the sound quality of this disc, in both its standard and SACD manifestations.

ZYMAN Sonata for Flute and Piano. LAVISTA Dance of Degas’s Ballerinas. CORAL Not So Short Sonata for Flute and Piano. ARMENGOL Divertimento. ARANDA Mnemósine. Cadenza. LUNA Six Fantasies for Flute and Piano. E. TOUSSAINT Bop Study #1 for Flute Solo

INVOCACIONES: Mexican Music for Flute and Piano • Dúo México con Brío (Evangelina Reyes [fl], Camelia Goila [pn])  URTEXT DIGITAL JBCC-188 (67:27)
ZYMAN Sonata for Flute and Piano. LAVISTA Dance of Degas’s Ballerinas. CORAL Not So Short Sonata for Flute and Piano. ARMENGOL Divertimento. ARANDA Mnemósine. Cadenza. LUNA Six Fantasies for Flute and Piano. E. TOUSSAINT Bop Study #1 for Flute Solo

This is another one of those collections of miscellany that is so easily overlooked or dismissed—I would probably pass over it myself if I were just a reader of this magazine. But this recording offers fine performances of an extremely appealing recital program, with a repertoire that ranges from the truly superb to the merely pleasant. I will discuss the program in my own judgment of descending order of interest.

The most fully satisfying work is the 17-minute sonata by the Mexican-American composer Samuel Zyman, now in his late fifties, and a member of the Juilliard faculty for quite a few years. From my personal vantage point, Zyman’s music seems to have drawn little serious attention, but of nearly a dozen of his works that I’ve encountered over the years I haven’t heard one that failed to exhibit an irresistible sense of compelling creative urgency, vividly and expertly articulated within the general language of traditional modern neo-classicism. But unlike the neo-classical norm, often characterized by a cool detachment and lack of emotional commitment, Zyman’s music is always serious and expressive in tone, with a driving contrapuntal energy. I cannot imagine a flutist who wouldn’t relish a work like this, which grabs the listener intensely from the first moment and never lets go. The piece it most resembles is the perennially popular Sonata for Flute and Piano by the late Robert Muczynski, but Zyman’s 1993 sonata is somewhat more driven and edgy.

Also of considerable interest and appeal is the Dance of Degas’s Ballerinas, composed in 1992 by Mario Lavista. Born in 1943, Lavista seems to have the most cosmopolitan academic pedigree of the composers represented, having studied with a range of mentors from Nadia Boulanger and Gyorgy Ligeti to Karlheinz Stockhausen. But the short piece that we hear here is a consistently absorbing abstract work in a modern traditionalist style. Some listeners may find their imaginations stimulated by the title, but I heard no convincing musical connection to the suggested images, yet had no problem connecting with the piece as pure music.

Leonardo Coral, born in 1962, is a prolific composer whose music has been performed widely throughout Mexico. His four-movement piece, whose title may be translated as Not So Short Sonata for Flute and Piano, dates from 2003. It is a pleasant piece with an occasional reminiscence of Poulenc—pretty, straightforward, but with no plumbing of expressive depths.

Mario Ruiz Armengol (1914-2002) was a versatile figure in Mexican music, celebrated in the classical, light classical, and popular fields. His Divertimento in G (1979) for alto flute and piano is a gracious, warmly lyrical piece.

Alexis Aranda, not yet forty and the youngest composer represented here, has been hailed as a major talent within the Mexican music establishment. A student of Mario Lavista, noted above, he is represented here by two very short pieces. The first, Mnemósine, refers to the goddess of memory. Dating from 2002, it begins with striking dissonance, but quickly warms up to an appealingly tonal lyricism. The earlier Cadenza for unaccompanied flute is a rather late addition to a genre overflowing with mediocre pieces.

Armando Luna (b. 1964) received his graduate training under Leonardo Balada at Carnegie Mellon University, while his career has flourished actively in his native Mexico. The program notes accompanying his Six Fantasies of 1992 make all sorts of intriguingly colorful references, but the actual music does not bear them out and is rather ordinary if pleasant enough.

Like many of the composers represented on this recital, Eugenio Toussaint (1954-2011) was active in Mexico’s popular, jazz, and classical worlds. His Bop Study No. 1 (1994) was originally written for recorder, but Evangelina Reyes transcribed it for flute. As it stands, the short piece exploits a wide range of flute effects, both familiar and unconventional, many of them suggestive of “bop”-style jazz.

All the pieces are performed expertly by both Reyes and her accompanist Camelia Goila.

J. F. ROGERS Memoria Domi. Sonata Lunaris. Blue River Variations. Once Removed

J. F. ROGERS Memoria DomiSonata LunarisBlue River VariationsOnce Removed • Joseph Eller (cl); William Terwilliger (vn); Robert Jesselson (vc); Lynn Kompass (pn); Andrew Cooperstock (pn); Marina Lomazov (pn); Cameron Britt, Scott Herring (mmb) • INNOVA 707 (65:54)

This recent release, comprising music composed between 2003 and 2005, was my introduction to John Fitz Rogers, although listening to it made me wonder why I’d never encountered his name—or, more important, his music—before. Turning 50 this year, Rogers has been on the scene for some time. Born and raised in Wisconsin, he studied classical and jazz piano at a young age, and began to compose at 12. He studied with well-known compositional figures at Cornell, Yale, and Oberlin, and has amassed a substantial portfolio of works, which appear to have been performed at a variety of auspicious venues. Many of his pieces show traces of jazz and rock (although there is little of that on this disc). Rogers is currently composer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina.

Beginning my listening with the Blue River Variations for piano solo, I knew within about a minute that this was music that warranted serious attention. Despite Rogers’s enthusiastic involvement in the other genres of music that have surrounded him, the works on this disc are thoroughly traditionalist in their aesthetics, applying a Pre-Modernist tonal approach in forming his own Post-Modern voice, “an authentically middle-American one that unapologetically embraces its Western European antecedents,” as stated in the excellent annotations by Phillip Bush. This is not to suggest that Rogers’s works offer a reactionary retreat into familiar, easy listening. Rather, each piece offers an initial impression of authentic expression sufficient to encourage the listener to delve deeper. Nor do these pieces suggest pre-1900 styles; on the contrary, they sound thoroughly 20th century, but with “rounded,” rather than “hard” edges.

These Blue River Variations are smoothly integrated, each eliding with the next, so that the work doesn’t display the familiar strophic quality that variations so often do, instead accumulating more along the lines of a narrative. The style of the work ranges from “serious modern classical” to a number of vernacular piano styles, the whole treated with remarkable fluency and taste. The keyboard writing shows the skilled hand of an experienced pianist, and the work is played here magnificently by the Ukrainian Marina Lomazov, for whom the work was written. She is also on the faculty at the University of South Carolina.

Memoria Domi (or “a memory of home”) is the most ambitious work on the program—in four movements lasting 24 minutes, scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It is serious in tone and modern traditionalist in style, with emphasis on forms such as canon and chaconne. Again one gleans the sensibility of an artist of the “old school,” in which a deeply expressive emotional contour is inseparable from abstract musical development, creating a compelling sense of engagement. Moments of passion occasionally call the music of Ernest Bloch to mind (though without ethnic features). The third movement is energetic, with a brilliant central toccata, while the beautiful fourth movement reveals a serenity somewhat reminiscent of Lou Harrison. The performance displays precision and polish throughout.

Sonata Lunaris, a work in three movements for violin and piano, is sober, sincere music of a reflective cast, once more displaying fluent mastery of the chromatic tonal language that appears to be Rogers’s natural idiom, which the composer treats as “a living, breathing art,” in the words of annotator Bush. The emotional core of the work is the centerpiece, a deeply searching “Lullaby,” while the final portion again calls Bloch to mind, in this case the ending of Baal Shem, albeit with a thoroughly gentile character. The duo who identify themselves as Opus Two provide a fine performance.

Quite different from the three works just discussed is Once Removed, an 8-minute work for two marimbas that serves as the title of the disc. It begins in innocent simplicity, reminiscent of minimalism as practiced early on by Steve Reich, but before long the listener is aware of a more rapid, dynamic rate of activity, as well as a greater degree of both emotional and conceptual complexity. The performance is extraordinary, its coordination aided by separate “click tracks.”

All four of these works reveal a gratifying clarity and coherence that convey the impression that initial acquaintance only scratches the surface, and that there is plenty more of value to derive from them. I look forward to further acquaintance with Rogers’s music.