THE GLENN GOULD SILVER JUBILEE ALBUM. Glenn Gould, piano, etc. CBS MASTERWORKS M2X 35914 (two LPs), produced by Andrew Kazdin, Paul Myers, and Glenn Gould.
BEETHOVEN/LISZT: Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68: First movement. GOULD: So You Want to Write a Fugue (performed by Elizabeth Benson-Guy, soprano; Anita Darian, mezzo-soprano; Charles Bressler, tenor; Donald Gramm, baritone; Juilliard String Quartet; Vladimir Golschmann, conductor). R. STRAUSS: Ophelia Lieder, Op. 67 (with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano). SCRIABIN: Two Preludes, Op. 57. SCARLATTI: Three Sonatas. C.P.E. BACH: Wurttemberg Sonata No. 1. A GLENN GOULD FANTASY.

It is now 25 years since Glenn Gould’s brilliantly idiosyncratic debut recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations stunned the music world. That recording set the tone for a career that, while consistently provocative, has offered unparalleled instrumental mastery and awesomely penetrating musicianship in the service of a refreshingly original and inquiring intellect. Whether or not the listener happens to share the pianist’s inclination towards a particular interpretive vagary, often chosen explicitly for shock value (and Gould’s discography contains at least something to offend or infuriate everyone), there is no denying that he has been virtually alone amid a pseudo-highbrow world of “serious” music dominated by intellectually vacuous superstars and their mediocre musicianship. It is to CBS’ distinct credit that throughout the years in which Gould has been absent from the recital stage, it has provided him with a forum on which to share with us his musical insights.

One disc of this special two-record set presents a varied potpourri of unusual musical items, recorded between 1964 and 1972, and apparently lying around ever since, until the appropriate opportunity arose. The other record is called “A Glenn Gould Fantasy,” in which the pianist indulges another of his chief enthusiasms—the creation of elaborately mixed and edited audio productions. Gould has produced a number of such aural documentaries—not all specifically related to music—for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, generating the sort of controversy that seems to accompany most of his endeavors.

As the list of contents shows, the first disc covers a wide musical range, but each little piece receives the microscopic attention to detail that marks all of Gould’s work. For me, the most rewarding item is the first movement from the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Is it not typically perverse of Gould to select a portion of the one Beethoven symphony whose effect is most dependent on orchestral color? How­ever, my skepticism disappeared when I heard the first phrase. Gould brings this music to life with a depth of understanding that rivals that of the great Beethoven conductors, and the absence of the orchestra, rather than a liability, becomes a virtue, as the pianist exerts precise control over the course of every musical strand. The radiance of the piano tone itself and the novelty of hearing certain textures and figurations on the piano are particu­larly exciting. Only during the development section does Gould’s highly analytical inter­pretation draw attention to weaknesses in the structure of the movement itself, making it sound even sillier than usual.

The other particularly interesting item is Gould’s own little composition So You Want to Write a Fugue. Since it was recorded in 1964, this gem has floated around on various limited issues, but this is its first “official” commercial release. Scored for vocal quartet and string quartet, it is a rare accomplishment: a funny piece of music that can actually be enjoyed as music or as fun, and whose wit is integrated into the musical structure itself. Without explaining the joke, I will say that it is a tour de force of contrapuntal technique, style mimicry, quotation weaving, and interaction between words and music. The performers manage well with the work’s considerable difficulties in execution, al­though the sound quality is awfully tight and constricted.

The remainder of the pieces are all in the way of odds and ends, although each is done thoughtfully and in exquisite taste. Only in the sonata by C.P.E. Bach did I feel that an effort was made to force more meaning than there is into the essentially empty music.

The second disc helps us to know Glenn Gould the man, although his articles and reviews over the years have modified the early view of him as a gifted sociopath into the impression of a verbally articulate, witty, and unconventional thinker with a wide range of interests (I remember with amusement his analytical reflection on the artistic significance of Petula Clark) who happens to be an eccentric, solitary sort. Perhaps I should add that, as someone who agrees that public musical performance is an anachronistic social vestige, soon to become obsolete, which appeals to the lower qualities of the audience, and is limited in artistic potential compared with the possibilities of recording—possibilities that Gould has been among the more adventurous in exploring—I look with approval on both his retirement from public performance and on his use of the recording medium as an artistic end in itself. Nevertheless, “A Glenn Gould Fantasy” suggests quite explicitly some deeper aspects of the pianist’s professional behavior.

The “Fantasy” takes the form of a radio program in which Gould confronts an assortment of questioners: a cerebral German abstractionist, a snide English stylistic purist, an American avant-garde hipster, and a belligerent Hungarian social realist. All but the last are portrayed, in appropriate dialect, by Gould himself. The “group” discusses such topics as the performance on the piano of music originally conceived for other instruments, the problem of retaining spontaneity in repeated performances, the recording of music as analogous to the creation of film, and the significance of Gould’s sound docu­mentaries. Gould has covered much of this ground elsewhere, although those unfamiliar with his points of view on these matters, and those unfamiliar with his various radio and television personae, will probably find the production entertaining.

But, in truth, this “Fantasy” is a tremendously self-indulgent ego trip; much of the 55 minutes is wasted on sophomoric foolishness, and a good deal is simply not as funny or as interesting as Gould seems to think it is. One gains the impression that Gould is rather like a precocious child who entertains himself in elaborate play with expensive toys in lieu of human interaction. In discussing the themes that underlie his “Solitude Trilogy” of sound documentaries, he describes his interest in people “who want to be in the world, but not of the world,” in people who refuse “to be drawn into the Zeitgeist,” the “tremendously tyrannical force [that] has to be overthrown in one’s life.” It is not a very radical leap to suggest that the themes of isolation and solitude have extreme personal significance for Gould, who, renouncing the dangers of spontaneous interaction with reality, has found through technological manipulations a means of exerting total control over all communication with the surrounding society (through recordings, articles, sound documentaries, and fabricated hypothetical interviews). There is thus a hot-house quality to his humor and to the imaginary personages with whom he populates his fantasies that reflects a psychological world into which stimuli are carefully filtered. That this may be an underlying psychodynamic does not invalidate the decisions he has made as a musician, nor even the ostensible rationales for these decisions. But it does shed some light on this reclusive personality who has been a unique and enigmatic figure on the musical horizon for the past quarter-century, and on the strange objective intimacy of his musicianship as well.

PERGAMENT The Jewish Song

PERGAMENT The Jewish Song. Birgit Nordin, soprano; Sven-Olof Eliasson, tenor; Stockholm Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra; James DePriest, conductor. Caprice CAP 2003 (2 LPs)

“. . . Among the most moving ex­periences of my life! The music tears the heart from the body; one can hardly stand any more.” This was the reaction of a Stockholm music critic who attended the resurrection in 1974 of Moses Pergament’s large-scale cantata, The Jewish Song, performed for the first time since its premiere in 1948—and a reaction likely to be echoed by many now that the work is available on records.

Now 84, Moses Pergament was born in Finland of orthodox Jewish parents. While in his 20s he moved to Sweden where he has pursued a career both as composer and music critic. The 73-minute cantata was written in the incredible period of three weeks during 1944, but it has taken more than 30 years for this work to make its way into the music world at large. Fortunately, one’s fascination with its curious background is justified by the quality of the work itself.

Divided into 13 sections, the cantata is based on a collection entitled Jewish Poems by Ragnar Josephson (also known as Ehren Preis), written in 1916. The poems (for whose translation I am indebted to Prof. Ester Krebs of NYU) express an un­relieved outcry of anguish, relentlessly recounting ages of abuse and misery, and ultimately concluding with the hope that steadfast faith will bring redemption in the end. A sense of the invincible bond of brotherhood that unites through shared suffering lends dignity and nobility to the outpouring of emotion.

The music that underscores these powerful sentiments does them justice, in a strong, serious mainstream neo-romantic idiom that one is tempted to describe as Hilding Rosenberg with a Jewish accent. The Jewish accent lies in the recurrence of the lowered fifth scale step and the interval of the augmented second. However, these devices are considerably more sub­dued here than, for example, in the “Jewish period” works of Ernest Bloch. There is a certain austerity and distance of vision that one associates with the modern Scandina­vian symphonists. Yet this Nordic reserve cannot dispel the sense of ferocious immediacy that informs the work from beginning to end.

The cantata is led with authority and conviction by James DePriest, who has been demonstrating extraordinary independence of judgment and discriminating musical perception for some time now. One wishes he were given more opportunity to document his discoveries on record. Of the soloists, tenor Sven-Olof Eliasson suffers from a rather pinched, strident tone, but soprano Birgit Nordin reveals a voice of unusual lightness and flexibility. This is definitely one of the year’s major releases.

ADAMS: Harmonium

ADAMS: Harmonium. San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart. ECM 1-25012.

John Adams (b. 1947) is the resident composer of the San Francisco Symphony—the West Coast’s answer to Glass and Reich. Although he has been somewhat slower to attract attention, he has generated quite a bit of excitement lately in many quarters, partly, one gathers, because the pulsing aspect does not dominate his music completely, and partly because Adams is not averse to reaching for gestures, colors, and effects found in more traditional orchestral music. Although I had heard only one of Adams’ works–Grand Pianola Music, which I found to be pretentious and empty—my interest was provoked by a number of highly enthusiastic reactions to Harmonium.

Several listenings have left me disappointed. Not that Harmonium is unpleasant at all—it simply raises expectations that remain unfulfilled. Like the Grand Pianola Music, Harmonium presents itself in a way that prompts awed anticipation of a revelation of some kind. This impression remains throughout the work, but the revelation never happens. Another way of saying this (and I know I have said the same thing about Philip Glass) is that the music sounds like an accompaniment track without the solo part (maybe the listener is supposed to supply one—Modern Music-Minus-One). The music lacks content; too much time elapses and too little happens. That makes it b-o-r-i-n-g. Now in fairness to Adams, the uneventfulness of this music is fully acknowledged by him as part of his expressive intent in conjuring a sense of vastness and eternity. Perhaps my perceptual processing system is too impatient. If others do not feel as I do, I’m willing to take some of the responsibility.

I also find that many of the undeniably attractive aspects—certain moods, colors, and feelings—have been expressed more effectively by other composers. Because Adams dips into the traditional musical language, to some extent his work can be related to existing repertoire. Aside from the pulsing texture, which clearly identifies Harmonium as a work from the past decade (and which I find has become a mannerism to be outgrown), one is reminded of the spacious, ethereal, and emotionally detached choral works of Gustav Holst—the Choral Sym­phony, for example; Howard Hanson’s Lament for Beowulf is another work that comes to mind often during the piece. Whether Adams is familiar with this music I do not know, but I think this is the crux of the matter. Of course, resemblance to one’s predecessors is no detriment; but ignorance of one’s predecessors, so that one is engaged in similar problems without the per­spective gained from familiarity with previous solutions—that is a different story. One often feels that many of today’s younger composers, in an earnest effort to create music offering something meaningful to an audience, find themselves “re-inventing the wheel,” because they are simply unaware of what expressive realms have already been mapped out during the first half of this century—realms that the standard academic syllabus of 20th-century music (Stra­vinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Webern) cannot account for. Thus handicapped, their work seems regressive.and tentative. Perhaps to many in the audience—and to many conductors as well—the simple notions of rich orchestration and consonant harmony are sufficient to induce ecstasy. But I suspect that Fanfare readers who have kept abreast of the various currents in 20th-century music will share my reaction.

Furthermore, there is the matter of Adams’ specific intent in this work. As texts he has chosen three poems: John Donne’s Negative Love and two by Emily Dickinson—Because I Could Not Stop for Death and Wild Nights. I find the concept of these three poems ill-conceived and unconvincing as a sequence, but I am not certain about this. (To Adams they sug­gest “a completed unity of form and meaning.”) But aside from this, the chorus has been mixed with the orchestra so that the words are completely inaudible. Adams himself is credited as a participant in the mixing and editing process, so one must assume that this was not an accident. Now I ask you, if a composer selects poetic texts, but doesn’t intend for the words to be heard at all, then why did he select texts? You tell me.

This recording is recommended to contemporary-music fans, just because one should know the music that captures the limelight at a given time.

DEL BORGO: Rituale. Prologue and Dance. Statements. Memoriam—Babi Yar.

DEL BORGO: Rituale. Prologue and Dance. Statements. Memoriam—Babi Yar. Crane School of Music Wind Ensemble conducted by Anthony Joseph Maiello. GOLDEN CREST ATHDG-5079 (digital), produced by Clark Galehouse.

Golden Crest’s “Authenticated Composers Series” has made the music of many Amer­ican composers—some relatively obscure—available to the record-buying public. Each re­lease in this valuable and informative series concentrates entirely on one individual, allowing a fuller introduction to the composer’s musical personality than is possible on the conven­tional “contemporary miscellany” disc. Among the more rewarding past releases in the series have been programs featuring Vincent Persichetti, Alfred Reed, and Judith Lang Zaimont.

This latest disc presents music by Elliot Del Borgo, a former student of Persichetti and now a faculty member of the Crane School of Music, part of the State University of New York at Potsdam. Though only in his mid-40s, Del Borgo has some 75 works to his credit, many of them designed for musicians of moderate proficiency. Nearly half his output comprises music for symphonic band, and it is this portion of his work that is sampled here.

The four compositions on this disc communicate fluently through the band dialect of American Neo-Romanticism—a language whose roots lie unmistakably in the music of Howard Hanson. The earmarks of this style include a strong melodic emphasis (either warm and solemn or brash and assertive in character), modal chorale harmonizations, polytonal con­flicts spiked by an abundance of flashy percussion effects, syncopated rhythmic ostinatos, and a directly expressive orientation controlled by a tight sense of pacing that never permits a dull moment. Although he never ventures outside these parameters, Del Borgo proves him­self a superior practitioner of the genre, as each piece fulfills the basic requirements com­pletely. Perhaps it is all a bit too glib, and one misses the signs of an individual voice; but the music evinces such vitality and expertise that one can safely predict that anyone with a taste for the style will enjoy this disc immensely.

Anthony Joseph Maiello conducts the Crane Wind Ensemble with requisite vigor and bite, although there are a few clinkers. The recorded sound is excellent, as are the surfaces. 

I understand that Del Borgo’s chamber music moves in other stylistic directions, and that Golden Crest is soon to release a recording of his saxophone sonata. I will be interested to explore his music further. 

DEBUSSY: The Fall of the House of Usher. CAPLET: Conte fantastique (“The Masque of the Red Death”) for Harp and String Orchestra. SCHMITT: Étude for “The Haunted Palace.”

DEBUSSY: The Fall of the House of UsherChristine Barbaux, soprano (Lady Madeline); Jean-Philippe Lafoint, baritone (Roderick); Pierre-Yves Le Maigat, baritone (The Friend); Francois Le Roux, baritone (The Doctor). CAPLET: Conte fantastique (“The Masque of the Red Death”) for Harp and String Or­chestra. Frederique Cambreling, harp. SCHMITT: Étude for “The Haunted Palace.” Monte Carlo Philharmonic conducted by Georges Pretre. ANGEL DS-38168 (digital), produced by Eric MacLeod.

This is a record sure to interest admirers of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, not to men­tion aficionados of the music of Debussy and of early 20th-century French music in general. In short, much about this new release is fascinating, although it is generally disappointing as a musical experience.

Debussy worked on a short operatic adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher inter­mittently during the last decade of his life. Although he completed a libretto, the only extant music is an opening prelude, a first scene and part of a second, and nine short, disconnected fragments from later in the work—none of it orchestrated. There is reason to suspect that Debussy, whose body was racked with cancer during his last years (he described himself as “a walking corpse”), had an ambivalent autobiographical relationship with the story, which con­cerns the symbolic theme of physical and spritual disintegration. Unresolved psychological conflicts may have interfered with his work on the project.

In 1976 Chilean composer Juan Allende-Blin completed a realization of the material for the opera, orchestrating it and uniting it into a continuous activity with a beginning and an end. Program notes by the usually reliable Harry Halbreich are rather vague concerning precisely what has been done here, but if I understood correctly, Allende-Blin has simply taken the opening portion (about 15 minutes) and connected onto it the remaining fragments. To my mind, joining this material into a continuous entity without accounting for the gaping holes does not make sense either dramatically or musically; no explanation or rationale is given. In no way can the result be viewed as a “performing version” along the lines of Deryck Cooke’s Mahler 10th, for example, since the result is not now a completed form. On the other hand, what we do have is quite interesting: a notion of the kind of dramatic adaptation Debussy had in mind and an idea of the musical language with which he intended to conjure the atmosphere of the story. Allende-Blin has clothed all this in appropriately diaphanous, sensuous orchestral garb.

Poe’s story is dominated thematically by a symbolic, almost tangible atmosphere, making it ideal for musical adaptation, although the fact that it is essentially static dramatically does not suggest opera as the most promising medium: I would think a dramatic cantata—some kind of sequence of lyrical tableaux—would be more in keeping with Poe’s elevated, stylized tone than an attempt to fabricate a conversational libretto. But the latter, strangely, is what Debussy had in mind, requiring considerable alteration of the story’s structure. In fact, De­bussy seems to suggest a “romantic quadrangle” not at all implicit in the original, which is an awfully obvious touch.

What we hear, then, is a brief orchestral prelude, setting a tone of misty anticipation, followed by several episodes that are disappointingly dull—much empty declamation—until it all trails off into the final incoherent fragments. The inadequacy of this music is underlined by a comparison of the opening section with the equivalent portion of Bartok’s contemporaneous (1911) Bluebeard’s Castle, which sets out to evoke a very similar mood using a very similar musical language.

Florent Schmitt composed his Study for “The Haunted Palace” in 1904, at about the same time as his stunning setting of the Psalm 47. Schmitt’s robust brand of impressionism is sorely neglected today, despite his importance in French music around the turn of the century—an importance explicitly acknowledged by both Ravel and Stravinsky, among others. Schmitt’s influence can be found in the stylistic crucible that produced such figures as Lili Boulanger, Arthur Honegger, and even Ernest Bloch. He was quite prolific and his work is not uniformly high in quality. But the Psalm 47 and Tragédie de Salomé (both available at one time on Angel S-36953) reveal him at his best, and the incidental music for Antoine et Cleopâtre and a Symphony No. 2 dating from 1957 (when the composer was 87!) are well worth exploring. This 12-minute orchestral poem, however, while pleasantly sumptuous, is thoroughly undistinguished. Not only does its stature fall dismally short of the poem that in­spired it (a poem that appears also within The Fall of the House of Usher) but the music has virtually no relationship to it in any way. Bluebeard’s Castle again comes to mind, as the most prominent motif of each work is virtually identical. There, however, the similarity ends. If the piece were entitled Rapsodie Romantique or some such, it might serve as fluffy filler for a disc or concert, but as “The Haunted Palace”—Roger Corman has served Poe with more loyalty.

Somewhat more imaginative is the Conte Fantastique for harp and strings, after the “The Masque of the Red Death,” by André Caplet, a close associate of Debussy. In this work a ball­room episode in the vein of Debussy’s Danse Profane is framed by a prelude and postlude quite macabre in tone. The harmonic language of the outer portions is astonishingly dissonant for a work composed in France in 1908—an extreme explained by the work’s programmatic content. However, aside from going on a bit longer than necessary, the work’s chief weakness is the pe­destrian and utterly conventional tone of the middle section. This, too, can be justified on pro­grammatic grounds, as representing the escape into banality of the Prince and his cohorts. Nevertheless, trite music is trite music; one can describe banality without being banal, as Poe certainly demonstrates in his story. While Caplet provides some strangely effective music in the outer portions, the work as a whole is simply too mundane for the story’s lofty, archaic rhetoric.

The inadequacy of these works in achieving a tone befitting their source of inspiration would not be such an issue if any of them was more successful as an independent piece. That not being the case, one is left to consider their relationship to their programs. Largely due to sympathetic translations by Baudelaire and Mallarmé early on, Poe’s work was greatly admired in France—perhaps more so than elsewhere—especially around the turn of the century. Yet French music at this time “sounded” so “French,” i.e., was so circumscribed by a particular harmonic and textural vocabulary, that it lacked the flexibility to extend itself to other sensibi­lities (aside from the Spanish, for some reason). Reflecting on this led me to wonder what other works might be viewed as achieving a tone more appropriate to Poe’s writings. Samuel Barber’s Music for a Scene from Shelley, for example, would be a far more convincing “Haunted Palace” than Schmitt’s morsel. And the material from which Vaughan Williams fashioned his Symphony No. 7 might perhaps have been used to create a Fall of the House of Usher. Maybe these are just my own subjective reactions . . .

In any case, the renditions on this recording give the impression of having been done diligently, but with minimal rehearsal time. Strings tend to be scraggly at times, but on the whole the performances are serviceable. Sound quality is extremely clear and transparent, magnifying some deficiencies in execution. Voices (in the Debussy) are miked a little too closely and mixed too far forward, but this is not terribly important. The disc is a real curiosity, but don’t expect musical revelations.

CRESTON: Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano. SOWASH: Four Seasons in Bellville.

CRESTON: Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano. SOWASH: Four Seasons in Bellville. Mirecourt Trio. TR RECORDS TRC-107

College record productions have long provided a means of encountering repertoire—usually of recent vintage—not otherwise found on disc. Such productions have usually been taken from mediocre concert performances, marred by substandard sound quality, audience noise, bargain-basement graphics, and little or no annotation—in short, they have not attempted to compete in the classical-music marketplace. Over the past couple of years, however, standards for such productions have risen dramatically, and one now encounters college recordings with production values on a par with major commercial releases. This trend is a positive development of importance to those interested in neglected contemporary repertoire. The cur­rent release, which should have considerable appeal to the mainstream classical listener, is an excellent case in point.

TR Records provides a showcase for the Mirecourt Trio (Kenneth Goldsmith, violin; Terry King, cello; John Jensen, piano), a superb ensemble in residence at Grinnell College in Iowa. The quality of the recording is of the highest caliber—rich, transparent, clean, and well balanced. Surfaces are immaculate, program notes are competent, and jacket design is attractive. Moreover, the release presents two very accessible works composed during the late 1970s by American composers who happen to be almost a half-century apart in age.

The Piano Trio, Op. 112, of Paul Creston testifies to the ongoing creative activity of one of the most distinguished members of the “older” generation of living American composers. Creston, who completed his Sixth Symphony three years ago, when he turned 75, continues to supplement his creative work with a vigorous regimen of writing, pursuing projects of a theoret­ical, as well as autobiographical, nature.

The Piano Trio is a four-movement work in Creston’s familiar chamber-music vein. Typically, limpid melodic and harmonic features reminiscent of Ravel are developed exuberantly in a neoclassical framework. To the listener unacquainted with Creston’s music, the impression is likely to suggest Poulenc, or perhaps Jean Francaix. At its best, as in the ubiquitous Sonata for Saxophone and Piano (1939), the Suite for Flute, Viola, and Piano (1952), and the recent Trio (1979) presented here, Creston’s chamber music displays warmth, a joyful, energetic vitality, and a consistently high level of craftsmanship in an idiom that has remained relatively unchanged throughout the past 45 years.
Recent interest in Creston’s music, reflected in part by increased recording activity, encourages the hope that he may regain the position of eminence that he held during the 1940s and ’50s as one of our most actively performed composers. However, as Paul Snook implies (Fanfare VII:4, p. 163, and elsewhere), little of the music of Creston that has appeared on recording of late makes a very strong case for his membership in the pantheon of great American composers. Not that there is any paucity of convincing music from which to draw: Creston’s distinctive creative personality can be found in all its glorious power and intensity in his symphonies (listen, for example, to the 1954 Westminster disc—desperately in need of reissue—featuring Nos. 2 and 3), in the symphonic poems Walt Whitman (briefly available around 1960 on RCA LM-2426—a horrible performance and recording), Corinthians: XIII (recently deleted from the Louisville series), Chthonic Ode (unrecorded), and Janus (unre­corded), and in the solo piano works Metamorphoses and Three Narratives (both unrecorded). Despite the influence of one composer or another here and there, this music speaks with a rhet­oric tailor-made to its own exclusive aesthetic requirements. Creston sets forth the message so clearly in his Symphony No. 2 (1944) that the work, which was a hit with audiences around the world, almost serves as a statement of purpose: an exultation in the unlimited delights of ki­netic rhythmic activity. It is the appeal of Creston’s rhythmic vitality that has won for him a legion of admirers that at one time included Toscanini, Stokowski, Monteux, Rodzinski, Reiner, Szell, and others of this ilk. Unfortunately, succeeding generations of conductors ap­pear utterly ignorant of all the fine American composers of this vintage beyond Copland and Barber. (Does one expect Sylvester Stallone to inherit the wisdom of Olivier?) So the big, hearty works that are Creston’s most important utterances gather dust, remembered fondly by those old enough to have heard them. Through the years, however, Creston has also produced a great many works of more modest expressive scope, and much of his chamber music falls into this category. While the Piano Trio is an excellent work, in these terms, and magnificently per­formed and recorded here, some of us know what remains lying in the wings.

Of a different nature altogether, the music of Rick Sowash (born in 1950) seeks to capture and immortalize the spirit of his hometown, Bellville, Ohio. Four Seasons in Bellville (Sowash’s answer to Vivaldi) is delightfully unpretentious, with a generosity of melody that ingratiates itself immediately. Despite its explicit intention to convey impressions of smalltown life, the work avoids predictable clichés of musical Americana, presenting such dangerously trite subject matter with irresistible freshness, sincerity, and even nobility. Texturally and structurally it is simple in the extreme, and there are those who would dismiss such a piece as simplistic and trivial. True, this is not the sort of thing likely to turn up on CRI. Nor is it the sort of musical content one expects to encounter in a piano trio. But Sowash seems to have nothing to prove, and his piece, abetted by an extremely sympathetic and committed perform­ance, makes a fine impression on its own terms.

If this disc is comparable to their other releases, TR Records has a most promising venture under way. I hope this offering reaches the large number of listeners who would appreciate it. 

CHAUSSON: Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet.

CHAUSSON: Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartetltzhak Perlman, violin; Jorge Bolet, piano; Juilliard String Quartet. CBS MASTERWORKS IM-37814 (digital), produced by Steven Epstein.

With the appearance of its second digital recording, I suppose that the Chausson Concert can no longer be considered a “neglected” masterpiece. By now it has been recorded by quite a few celebrated artists, the most recent of whom was Lorin Maazel, as violin soloist on a Telarc release also featuring lsraela Margalit as pianist, with the Cleveland Orchestra Quartet. That was a good performance—up to a point—and so is this new CBS rendition—in fact, the two are not all that different from each other. True, Perlman’s violin playing is smooth and lustrous, while Maazel’s is a little shaky; and Bolet’s playing is a bit flaccid, while Mar­galit’s is more incisive. On the whole, the Perlman performance is pervasively mellow, while Maazel’s interpretation depends more on contrasts of mood and tempo. Yet these differ­ences are very minor in degree. In actuality, the performances share much more in common: They are both very romantic and, at times, allow their notion of what “romantic” playing is to lead them away from the natural syntax of the music—what might be called interpretive dogma. Both performances also strive for a consistently velvety sound and a mood of genteel languor. This is particularly true of the new Perlman performance; the Maazel does have its moments of agitation and excitement. Both quartets are smoothly polished and both re­cordings offer clear, sumptuous sonic splendor.

I am pleased that today’s leading musicians are turning their attention to a work that I have long regarded as one of the masterpieces of 19th-century chamber music. But what is unsatisfactory about Perlman’s rendition especially is symptomatic of today’s “superstar” performers and their mass-market approach to classical music: polished virtuosity narcissistically oblivious to the music it is supposed to serve. Unlike his counterpart of yesterday, whose coarseness and vulgarity was usually blatantly obvious, today’s more sophisticated brand of virtuoso has learned to affect “tonal beauty,” to suggest “romantic emotion” with slow tempos, and to avoid the tackiness of excessive rubato. But despite the veneer of refinement, it’s still interpretation by numbers, dead musicianship, devoid of insight, embalmed to simulate the real thing. It is what a friend of mine calls “the Bjorn Borg approach to music-making”; you can hear it when Pavarotti sings, when Mehta conducts, and you can hear it when Perlman plays, to name just a few of many examples.

As I opined at some length in my review of the Telarc recording (Fanfare IV:2, pp. 92-3), Chausson’s Concert is an eloquent work of intense emotion and an important precursor of impressionism. Its considerable significance is not at all conveyed by this CBS release. (For evidence of what is missing, listen to the now-defunct Mace recording, MCS-9074, that fea­tured John Corigliano, Sr., and Ralph Votapek.) In listening to this disc and reading the jack­et, I wondered that it was chosen for recording at all. In his typically simplistic annotation, Peter Eliot Stone offers nothing to entice the prospective purchaser to consider this music—or to enhance the understanding of the listener, simply reiterating conventional clichés about Chausson that reveal little familiarity with his unique qualities or his true place in the evolution of French music. Perlman, the violinistic equivalent of “just another pretty face,” goes through the piece without losing his smile, while Bolet yawns and tries to stay awake. Is this what they mean by “world-class musicianship? 

CHAUSSON: Trio in G minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano. Pièce for Cello and Piano. Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet. Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet.

CHAUSSON: Trio in G minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano. Pièce for Cello and Piano. Les Musiciens (Regis Pasquier, violin; Roland Pidoux, cello; Jean-Claude Pennetier, piano). HAR­MONIA MUNDI (France) HMC-1115, produced by Michel Bernard.

CHAUSSON: Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String QuartetSylvia Rosenberg, violin; Maria Luisa Faini, piano; Chester String Quartet. PANTHEON PFN-2101, produced by John Santuccio.

CHAUSSON: Quartet in A for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano.Les Musiciens (Regis Pasquier, violin; Bruno Pasquier, viola; Roland Pidoux, cello; Jean-Claude Pennetier, piano). HARMONIA MUNDI (France) HM-1116, produced by Michel Bernard.

Ernest Chausson’s representation on records is improved significantly with these new re­leases highlighting three of his four major chamber works. (The fourth, a String Quartet in C minor, left incomplete at the time of his fatal bicycle accident, may be heard on Musical Heri­tage Society 1351Z.) Ginette Keller, annotator of the Harmonia Mundi discs, writes, “The name of Ernest Chausson is almost forgotten today; apart from the famous Poème for violin and orchestra, what music is known by this composer . . . ?” I suppose it depends on how we conceive of the collective public by whom one is either recognized or ignored, but it seems to me that during the past several years Chausson’s time has really arrived. If one considers the several fine recordings of the Concert in D, the excellent recordings of the Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer, with the extraordinary Jessye Norman disc heading the list (Erato NUM-75059; see Fanfare VII:3, pp. 163-4), the long-awaited complete recording of the opera Le Roi Arthus (MRF 179-S; see Fanfare VI:2, pp, 119-20), together with these three new releases, it appears that Chausson has finally shed the restrictive mantle of Franck epigone, having become acknowledged as a distinctive artist in his own right.

In previous reviews I have cited Chausson as the most potent creative figure in French late Romanticism, an important precursor of and influence on Debussy, a student of Franck who achieved a refinement and elegance far beyond that of the Belgian master, yet who was never content with the facile triviality or labored academicism that satisfied most of his compatriots. Chausson’s output was relatively small (less than 40 works), owing to a late start in music (he first earned a law degree), slow and highly self-critical work habits, and premature death at the age of 44. Yet few of these works stray from the standards of elevated artistic content and me­ticulous workmanship that Chausson defined for himself. It is therefore gratifying to find his work accorded the attention and respect that it truly deserves.

The piano trio is an early work, composed in 1881, while Chausson was still a Franck stu­dent. Here the influence of the elder composer is omnipresent—along with that of Brahms in the scherzo, and even of Tristan—thoughnot to the point of completely obscuring the identity of the young composer. One must also concede that the rhetoric is overwrought at times, routine at others, quite in the manner of Franck. Yet while the trio lacks the individuality and refinement of the mature works, its sense of emotional commitment is powerful, its thematic material is of high quality, and its developmental craftsmanship is strong, making it an auspicious work certain to reward the interest of those concerned with Chausson and his time.

The performance, by an ensemble associated with Radio France and known as Les Musiciens, is excellent. They present the trio on a grand scale, broadly paced and dramatically con­toured, lending it an imposing legitimacy that performances of neglected works are notorious for lacking. There have been several previous recordings of this work. The best known to me is a Dutch disc (Orpheon BP-201) released during the late 1970s, featuring the Guarneri Trio. That was a fine, vigorous performance, no less impressive than this new one.

The disc also contains the eight-minute Pièce for cello and piano, composed in 1897. It is a lovely elegy, without the morbidity to which Chausson was so often prone. Despite its outward simplicity, it reveals a sophistication in rhythm and texture missing from the earlier—if more ambitious—trio. In the Pièce, however, the exposed cello playing of Roland Pidoux re­veals a rather raw, sinewy tone quality.

The Concert in D for violin, piano, and string quartet appeared some 10 years after the trio and is a work of Chausson’s artistic maturity, although he is said to have remarked, “an­other failure,” upon its completion. Some time later, however, no less than Kaikhosru Sorabji termed it “one of the most original and beautiful chamber works of modern times.” I concur wholeheartedly with Sorabji’s high regard for the piece, although today’s listener will certainly not find anything “modern” in it, rooted as it is in an aesthetic realm that might be termed pre-impressionistic. Musicians seem finally to be discovering this work, a moving personal state­ment by a major artist, which gives full vent to a profound inner despair within a language of elegant urbanity resembling art nouveau. In the tension between the yearning for intimate con­fession and the need to maintain composure, one finds a parallel with the psychological dynamic of someone as apparently different as Sir Edward Elgar.

The tremendous appeal of this work has led to several recordings of late, the most recent of which was an awfully shallow reading featuring Itzhak Perlman, Jorge Bolet, and the Juil­liard Quartet (CBS IM-37814; see Fanfare VII:2, pp. 201-2). This new Pantheon recording, with Sylvia Rosenberg, Maria Luisa Faini, and the Chester Quartet (apparently from the East­man School of Music), is excellent, without the preciousness and fastidiousness that have un­dermined other versions. These performers are not afraid of (or oblivious to) the powerful emotions that motivate the work. Only the last movement seems to sag somewhat, due to the duress of continually active textural figurations. Less expensive than the formidable digital version with Lorin Maazel, Israela Margalit, and the Cleveland Orchestra String Quartet (Telarc DG-10046; see Fanfare IV:2, pp. 92-3), this analog recording presents a fine alternative, al­though Maazel and company display somewhat more finesse, especially in the last movement.

Chausson completed his piano quartet in 1897, six years after the Concert, and it reflects something of a shift in focus, from emotional expression to textural variety. Therefore an em­phasis on subtle nuances of tone color is not as dangerous as when applied to the Concert. The work is clearly recognizable as Chausson’s, with its pentatonic themes, melancholy moods, and richly billowing textures. But it is a bit less subjective, less filled with pathos. Indeed it is one of Chausson’s few major works not conceived in a state of protracted hopelessness; some com­mentators consider it his masterpiece.

The only other fairly recent recording of the work to circulate in this country is an English performance from about 1970 featuring the Richards Quartet (L’Oiseau-Lyre SOL-316). That one was good, but a bit lacking in conviction. This new performance by Les Musiciens exhibits exquisite tonal refinement, underlining the quartet’s aesthetic affinity with the contemporaneous works of Debussy. It is an expansive reading, making no attempt to hurry through what is quite a leisurely piece. Richly recorded, the performance luxuriates in its own sensuousness. Al­though I might prefer a more tangible sense of progression, this is an excellent rendition that Chausson enthusiasts will not want to miss.

At this point, these three discs, along with the aforementioned Jessye Norman recording, the Le Roi Arthur set, and a version each of the Symphony in Br and the violin Poème, can serve as an essential, representative discography of one of the leading figures in French music of the 19th century.

CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer; Chanson perpétuelle; Cinq melodies.

CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer; Chanson perpétuelle; Cinq melodies. Jessye Norman, soprano; Monte Carlo Philharmonic String Quartet; Michel Dalberto, piano; Philhar­monic Orchestra of Monte Carlo conducted by Armin Jordan. ERATO NUM-75059 (digital), produced by Pierre Lavoix.

Ernest Chausson’s small but distinguished output is being explored increasingly by today’s celebrated performers. Not long ago, he was viewed as a fastidious bourgeois epigone of Franck, and one whose place in the repertoire was held only by the Poème for violin and or­chestra, a piece often dismissed as bloated salon sentimentality. However, as Harry Halbreich observes in his astute liner notes, Chausson is recognized today as one of the most important figures in French Romanticism, not only as a stylistic link between Franck and Debussy, one might add, but also as the possessor of an individual creative personality that reveals a profound inner conflict between an intensely emotional nature and a patrician sense of modesty. Indeed, the violin Poème itself is a masterpiece of elegiac dignity, eloquently presenting the aesthetic core of Chausson’s art (if somewhat trivialized by overexposure, placement in trite program contexts, and shallow performances).

One of the major compositions of Chausson to gain attention during the past several years is the Poème de l’amour et de la mer, a two-part vocal work lasting about half an hour. Com­pleted in 1892, the Poème describes the prototypical summer romance—its momentary taste of ecstasy, which passes and cannot be rekindled—from the familiar fin de siecle pose of retro­spective melancholia. It is a testament to Chausson’s acute artistry that this time-worn conceit is conveyed with such touching conviction. A strong melodic contour soars through the bil­lowing waves of chromaticism, providing the focus and stability often missing from lesser works of this kind.

In evaluating this new recording, which features soprano Jessye Norman with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo, one calls for comparison several available alternatives, all ex­tremely good (see Fanfare 11:2, pp. 43-44). One might summarize their qualities as follows: The performance by Victoria de los Angeles (Angel S-36897) is warm, limpid, and intimately projected, but perhaps insufficiently varied in tone color; the one by Montserrat Caballé (Peters PLE 021) is equally warm, but richer and more powerful, yet somewhat short on subtlety and nuance; Janet Baker’s (Angel S-37401) displays her unerring intelligence, sensitivity to nuance, and expression of textual meaning, but reveals the shortage of sheer sensuous power and rich­ness in her voice—a weakness that becomes particularly noticeable in a work like this, and in company like this. However, after listening to Jessye Norman’s recording, I must conclude that she simply takes all prizes. Displaying a gorgeous sound, magnificent artistry, a broad range of color and expression, as well as sensitivity to text, she offers the best performance of this work that I have ever heard. And, surprisingly enough, the orchestra, under Armin Jordan’s sensitive direction, provides a flexible, richly balanced accompaniment that rivals even that of the London Symphony on the Baker disc.

In addition to this splendid performance, the disc also contains the only recording currently available in the U.S. of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, a seven-minute song accompanied by piano quintet. One of the composer’s last works, it again depicts a situation of torrid love abruptly terminated, but expressed now with an increased concentration of poignant in­tensity, placing it among the composer’s three or four greatest compositions, along with the Concert in D and the opera Le Roi Arthus (now available on MRF 179-S). Janet Baker’s erstwhile recording of Chanson perpétuelle (L’Oiseau-Lyre S-298) was awfully close to perfection, partly because its greater demands for verbal nuance and subtlety of expression in an intimate context were ideally suited to her gifts, so that I find it impossible to prefer any performance to that one. But Jessye Norman’s new rendition is gorgeous on its own terms (and Baker’s is no longer available in this country).

The additional inclusion of five melodies from Chausson’s Op. 2 group is nice, although these early songs are among his weakest; later melodies are more interesting. Sound quality of this Erato disc does full justice to the opulence of the music and the magnificence of the per­formances. 

McKINLEY: Paintings VI. Six Impromptus. MEKEEL: Alarums and Excursions. Rune.

McKINLEY: Paintings VI. Six Impromptus. MEKEEL: Alarums and Excursions. Rune. Katherine Lenel, actress/mezzo-soprano; Boston Musica Viva conducted by Richard Pittman. NORTHEASTERN NR-203, produced by L. E. Joiner

Unfortunately, the meticulous production values of Northeastern Records have been expended here on music of awfully paltry quality. Both William Thomas McKinley and Joyce Mekeel belong to the generation of composers born in the 1930s, and are currently located in Boston—McKinley at the New England Conservatory and Mekeel at Boston University. The pieces on this disc date from 1977-1980 and share a number of features in common: Both are composed in the fragmentary, disjointed, and relentlessly ugly style that was de rigueur for their generation a decade or two ago, but which has since been abandoned by many of their colleagues as an artistic dead end and a socio-cultural lost cause. McKinley and Mekeel do bring a modicum of artistic sensibility to the shaping of their creations, and the pieces are presented in the best possible light, through luminescent performances by the Boston Musica Viva. But the music’s meager virtues are overshadowed by outrageously unjustified pretenses: McKinley writes of his Paintings VI,”Acting as a microcosm for all exis­tence through the symbolic development of the forces, ideas, and attitudes that color experi­ence, this life process is given correspondent relationships in the musical structure.” Bill, watch those dangling participles. And the music—somehow it all suggests the work of an overly self-confident second-year composition student. But this is modest, compared to Joyce Mekeel’s Alarums and Excursions, a sound collage of largely spoken poetic fragments (whose sources range from Aeschylus to Mekeel) intoned ominously over a sparse instrumental fabric. While listening to it, I realized it would be most appropriate in a Neil Simon-type play, as a caricatured example of “modern music”—the kind everyone loves to hate.  

Even if Northeastern Records insists on restricting itself to composers from New Eng­land, I find it hard to believe that they can’t come up with anything better than this. One wonders whether someone actually made a conscious decision to select this music for recording, or Whether it was simply the result of some depersonalized bureaucratic compromise.