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

AMERICAN CLASSICS ● Lori Sims (pn) ● TWO PIANISTS RECORDS TP1039152 (62:51)
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.”    

SCHUMAN On Freedom’s Ground. A Free Song. Prelude. American Festival Overture. SOWERBY Canticle of the Sun. COPLAND Appalachian Spring.

SCHUMAN On Freedom’s Ground. A Free Song. Prelude. American Festival Overture ● Ian Hobson,Fred Stoltzfus, conds; University of Illinois Chorale and Oratorio Society, Sinfonia da Camera; Ricardo Herrera (bar); Ingrid Kammin (sop) ● ALBANY TROY1280 (71:33)

SCHUMAN A Free Song. SOWERBY Canticle of the Sun. COPLAND Appalachian Spring ●Carlos Kalmar, cond; Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus ● CEDILLE CDR-90000 125 (74:00)

William Schuman’s “secular cantata” A Free Song was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1943—the first such prize given for a piece of music. I have often described this work as one that is mentioned in print far more often than it is heard. For despite its having achieved such distinction almost 70 years ago, it has never appeared on a recording. But the unpredictable has happened once again: Suddenly two different performances of this work on two different recordings have been released at virtually the same time. (Detail mongers may be interested to know that while both releases proclaim themselves “world premiere recordings,” the Cedille was actually recorded about four months before the Albany.)

Turned down for military service because of a neurological condition, Schuman decided to make his contribution to the War effort by composing several works that would convey the sentiments he felt were appropriate to the circumstances. A Free Song was written in 1942, and was scored for chorus and orchestra with baritone soloist. Its two parts, setting portions of Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps, last about 15 minutes. The first section decries the horrifying casualties of war, while the second is a patriotic exhortation on behalf of perseverance in the name of “liberty.” The work is an example of what might be termed “social Gebrauchsmusik,” a kind of national populism that enjoyed a brief period of fashion shortly before and during the War. But from today’s perspective, the impact of the piece is dated and somewhat heavy-handed. The choral writing is largely homophonic, so as not to over-tax amateur choruses. The second section begins with an orchestral fugato that is the most interesting portion of the piece, as well as the part most characteristic of the composer (who else would introduce a fugue subject on the bass clarinet?). However, the work suffers—as do several of Schuman’s choral compositions—from a lack of interesting melodic and harmonic material. The result is a certain stiff, mechanical quality, and fails to support the sentiments expressed by the poetry. The work was introduced by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, along with choruses from Harvard and Radcliffe. The performance was broadcast widely, and was largely well-received at the time. However, Schuman’s devoted advocate Aaron Copland, who had heard the broadcast, wrote the composer that he liked the instrumental portions, but found the choral writing “not my dish, giving the whole a somewhat forced impressiveness.” I think that despite the strong patriotic emotions rampant at the time, Copland clearly saw the work’s areas of strength and weakness. Today A Free Song appears very much of its time, its interest largely of a historical nature.

Both these new performances are worthy efforts, and I hate to choose one over the other. However, I would have to cite the Chicago performance (on Cedille) as richer, fuller, and more refined. Both baritones are acceptable, though the (unidentified) soloist on this recording is a little more secure than his counterpart on the Albany release. Furthermore, Albany does not designate separate tracks for the work’s two sections.

But the Albany release is indispensable to Schuman enthusiasts in offering the first recording of On Freedom’s Ground, one of the composer’s most ambitious works, an “American Cantata” in five linked sections of 40 minutes duration, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. During the years leading up to 1976, the much-heralded American Bicentennial, Schuman, who loved the role of “musical statesman,” had been counting on a major commission that would give him the opportunity to make a large statement of national significance. But no such commission was forthcoming, much to his disappointment.  However, ten years later marked the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. To commemorate this event, a large consortium of orchestras and choruses offered Schuman a commission that would provide the opportunity he had been waiting for. Schuman arranged for an original text to be commissioned from the noted poet Richard Wilbur, who eagerly agreed to collaborate with the composer.

Schuman completed the work in 1985, and it was introduced the following year by the New York Philharmonic and the Crane Chorus from SUNY/Potsdam, conducted by Zubin Mehta, with Sherrill Milnes as soloist. The text for the five sections deals respectively with the nation’s pre-colonial origins, its philosophical roots in England, mourning the deaths of those who gave their lives on behalf of the nation’s ideals, as well as the ways in which the nation betrayed those ideals (the longest, most serious portion of the work), a light-hearted review of popular dance styles from the preceding century, and, finally, a commitment to providing a home for the immigrants of the future. Each section begins with an extended orchestral introduction, and these are undeniably the most compelling portions of the work. At the very beginning a theme is stated, rather like the melody of a chorale prelude, which has been called the “Liberty” theme. This motto appears in a different guise in each movement, serving as a unifying element.

Despite the more than four decades that separate the appearance of this work from A Free Song, the two compositions share much in common. Both are clearly the products of a “musical statesman,” in their fervent articulation of national ideals expressed from a collective perspective, while both—in the choral portions—display a dry, expressively neutral, largely homophonic harmonic treatment, especially dissonant in the later work, although Schuman was clearly passionate in his embracing of these ideals; and both are most interesting in their instrumental portions. Many of Schuman’s familiar devices can be found in the later work—his treatment of words as syncopated rhythmic elements, his generous use of percussion, and his weakness for triumphant endings, which sometimes seem totally forced. The fourth movement, with its sequence of dance styles, is clearly the most immediately appealing, and provides much-needed relief after the very grim and serious third movement.

One is forced to conclude that, as with A Free Song, the eloquence of Schuman’s music in On Freedom’s Ground simply does not match its high-minded ambitions. Ultimately its importance is probably greater for what it represents within Schuman’s compositional career than for its value within the 20th-century choral/orchestral repertoire. This University of Illinois performance is quite respectable, while Ricardo Herrera is adequate as baritone soloist. Inexplicable to me is Albany’s failure to provide individual tracks for the five sections of this lengthy work.

Prelude for Voices is a short a cappella work composed in 1939, originally for women’s voices, but arranged for mixed voices three years later. The text is based on portions of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, but it is not included in the program booklet. Though the piece may not win the listener’s sympathies immediately—especially without the text at hand—it has subtleties that become quite haunting with greater familiarity. Working against its immediate appeal is Schuman’s oddly synthetic treatment of melody and harmony (with intervals contracting and expanding in a contrived, almost schematic manner, rather than springing from a spontaneous impulse). But there are also some very affecting passages, most notably one in which a solo soprano (here the lovely-voiced Ingrid Kammin) soars floridly above the massed voices.

The disc opens, appropriately enough, with the rousing American Festival Overture, also from 1939. This is perhaps the earliest work in which the familiar earmarks of the composer’s mature style are evident, although the influence of Roy Harris is equally apparent. Although the work is exuberant and light-hearted in tone, it is busy with contrapuntal complexities, which may have militated against its achieving a more wide-ranging popularity. The performance here is OK, but no match for those conducted by either of the two Leonards—Bernstein or Slatkin.

I don’t mean to slight Ian Hobson here. He is an extraordinarily versatile musician—both pianist and conductor—whose repertoire embraces an enormous range. Born and educated in England, he has developed—among his many other interests—quite an affinity for American composers, and for William Schuman in particular. Currently on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, where this recording was made, he is clearly the motivating force behind it. The Sinfonia da Camera, which he founded, is a competent ensemble. While a group of this kind may not measure up to the standards of the major professional orchestras, it can play a valuable role in introducing and familiarizing serious listeners with works not otherwise available—as it has here, together with the equally adept Chorale and Oratorio Society.

In turning to the remainder of the Cedille recording, I must confess to finding various aspects of it rather perplexing and frustrating, and these aspects soured my reaction somewhat to a disc that—taken on its own terms—offers extremely fine performances of three Pulitzer Prize-winning works. The disc is entitled “The Pulitzer Project,” although, according to conductor Carlos Kalmar (interviewed in the previous issue) there are no plans for this to be an ongoing series. The program features three works that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1943, 1945, and 1946. But, taking a closer look at the contents, one cannot help but wonder what happened with the 1944 Pulitzer Prize—wasn’t one awarded? Yes, it was, to Howard Hanson’s Fourth Symphony, subtitled “Requiem.” Not only was it awarded the Prize, but it remained the composer’s own favorite among his symphonies. Although Hanson himself recorded it, back in the early 1950s, and Gerard Schwarz did so in the early ‘90s, it certainly hasn’t suffered from over-exposure. Which brings us to Copland’s Appalachian Spring, winner of the 1945 Pulitzer—in its original scoring for 13 instruments. But that is not what is recorded here: What we have is the familiar suite for full orchestra. Let me be clear—this is a warm, sympathetic, and polished rendition of the score, worthy of consideration alongside the best of the many other recorded performances. But I cannot imagine the market to whom this recording is directed: Of those American music connoisseurs who might be interested in the relatively obscure works by Schuman and Sowerby, who will want to be stuck with the umpteenth recording of Appalachian Spring? Such listeners may well be annoyed—as was I—that a third of the available space on this recording was wasted on a superfluous reading of this chestnut. Not only would I have preferred a new recording of the Hanson, there are any number of other American works of the first rank that have never been recorded. And which beginning collectors, ready for their first recording of the Copland ballet, wouldn’t rather have such comparably popular works as El Salon Mexico or Rodeo or Billy the Kid filling out the disc? Though I may be faulted for focusing on what the disc isn’t, rather than what it is, I think these points are relevant—especially for those trying to find profitable ways of recording unusual repertoire, as well as for those who comprise the natural market for a release like this.

This brings us to the largest selection on the disc, The Canticle of the Sun, composed in 1944 by Leo Sowerby. Based on the famous prayer of St. Francis, it is a work for chorus and orchestra in 11 sections, each devoted to a verse of the prayer. The entirety is more than half an hour in duration, and inhabits a generally neo-romantic style that falls somewhere at the intersection of, say, Vaughan Williams and Walton, with a sense of sonority that somewhat resembles the choral works of Howard Hanson. Though I think of the spirit of St. Francis as one of self-abnegation, and renunciation of the material world in favor of a life of utter simplicity, Sowerby’s work is filled with grand gestures, rich textures, and full sonorities, although the varied character of its different sections covers a broad range of expression. Initially I found the impact of the music to be limited to an impressive surface, but without substantive melodic or harmonic interest. However, with repeated listening the work seemed to blossom for me, its varied sections offering increasing gratification. While its overall spirit may not be the true spirit of St. Francis, I am glad to have made its acquaintance. The performance offered here—of both chorus and orchestra—is quite stunning. In conclusion, I would say that one’s degree of curiosity about Sowerby’s work may be the determining factor as to whether or not one chooses to acquire the recording.

COPLAND: FANFARE FOR AMERICA – A Film by Andreas Skipis

COPLAND: FANFARE FOR AMERICA ● A Film by Andreas Skipis ● ARTHAUS 101 573 (DVD: 60:00)

This is an excellent overview of Copland—his life, his musical style, and his place in the history of American music. Many subscribers to this publication who read the foregoing sentence are likely to think to themselves, “I already know all that.” This DVD is not designed for those readers.

The visualization comprises some historical footage, as well as on-camera commentary by conductor Hugh Wolff, also seen conducting generous excerpts from some of Copland’s best 
known pieces, played by members of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra; and by Howard Pollack, musicologist at the University of Houston and the author of an important recent biography of the composer; there is also some commentary by the composer himself. Pollack contributes some of the most interesting insights into the composer’s personal history and character. His remarks are set in a variety of venues that proclaim “New York City.” The excerpts of Copland’s music are also accompanied by footage of New York City, including the Brooklyn neighborhood where the composer grew up. At first it was a little disconcerting to hear “Hoe-Down” while watching a scene of traffic on the FDR Drive, until it occurred to me that perhaps this is underlining the point that Copland’s evocations of cowboys and the Wild West, of Appalachian pioneers, of Mexico, et al. were all conceived by a lifelong resident of New York City. The footage of the musicians is also enhanced by some unusual visual effects. 

Perhaps the aspect of the documentary most interesting to more knowledgable viewers is the fact that this is a German production, and thus provides a German perspective on Copland and his place in American musical history. Although the on-screen commentary is presented in English by Americans, there is also the voice-over narration in German, presumably written and perhaps spoken by the director Andreas Skipis (with optional sub-titles in English, French, or Spanish). The bias is most apparent toward the end when the anonymous narrator states, “Along with Ives, Gershwin, and Bernstein, Copland represents the American chapter in the history of music.” When I picked myself up off the floor, I reflected on what a short and largely peripheral chapter that would make, within a German history of music.

My other quibble involves a point made by Hugh Wolff, during a segment on Copland’s Third Symphony. Wolff points to the influence of Mahler on this work. Not only is this true only if one assumes that all grandiose 20th-century symphonies are influenced by Mahler—a ridiculous assumption—but it also overlooks several important factors: 1) that Copland’s Third was not unique, but one of dozens of grand American symphonies composed during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s; 2) that the Third Symphony (composed just a few years after Shostakovich’s Fifth) was really Copland’s attempt at creating an example of symphonic Socialist Realism, American style. If one wants to argue that Mahler was an influence on Shostakovich, that is a legitimate point—but that doesn’t necessarily make him an influence on Copland.

In summary, this is an informative introduction to Copland and his music, probably most appropriate for non-Americans, whose general background regarding American music may be limited. Most Americans who care about Copland will probably be familiar with this information, while those Americans who aren’t probably don’t care about Copland.
 

SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. COPLAND: A Lincoln Portrait. WALKER. An Eastman Overture.

SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. COPLAND: A Lincoln Portrait. WALKER. An Eastman Overture. Willie Stargell, narrator (Schwantner); William Warfield, narrator (Copland); Eastman Philharmonia conducted by David Effron. MERCURY 289-411 031-1, pro­duced by John Santuccio and Rayburn Wright

Following the musical development of Joseph Schwantner rather closely for several years has given me a strong feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, an authentic musical sensibility can be discerned, together with an impetus toward direct and clear communica­tion, and a gift for combining highly imaginative sonorities with affecting melodic/harmonic motifs. The result is a greater emotional immediacy than most of Schwantner’s contem­poraries have been able to accomplish. On the other hand, after becoming familiar with even a small number of his works, one begins to realize that Schwantner’s range is quite narrow, relying on a small number of different devices: richly colored ascending arpeggios that are subsequently fragmented and re-articulated through staggered, interlocking effects; deli­cate use of percussion; lusciously orchestrated pyramids that build dramatically, often to solemn quasi-chorales, which cut abruptly to hushed, awesome, slightly elegiac quasi-hymns, squeezing every last tear from poignant appoggiaturas. All of this is quite irresistible on a purely endocrine level, but the effect is more predictable with each new piece.

What is especially disturbing, however, is that Schwantner—very much like such other young Americans as John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, Thomas Pasatieri, and even Philip Glass, in their own respective styles—seems to have focused his effort specifically on those effects that will engender the “big bang” from his audience, bypassing aspects of musical composition that may be harder to achieve. Overlooked, in particular, is the integration of emotional effect with musical development, which requires both disciplined formal logic and a strong contrapuntal foundation. While such virtues may not necessarily be appreciated on an initial encounter, they are essential for prolonged appreciation and enjoyment. In general this laxity seems to distinguish many of the “New Romantics” from the older generations of “Modern American Traditionalists,” exemplified by Giannini, Creston, Persichetti, Mennin, Flagello—or Copland, for that matter, who certainly was able to reach an audience instantly, without sacrificing craftsmanship. It is a matter of commitment to quality, regardless of immediate payoff, and has absolutely nothing to do with the question of accessibility vs. obscurity.

I feel this ambivalence more intensely in regard to Schwantner than to many of his col­leagues, largely because of the considerable extent of his gifts, and I feel it more strongly in reaction to New Morning for the World, one of his most recent works, than to any other I have heard. First performed earlier this year on Martin Luther King’s birthday, the 27-minute orchestral work includes readings from speeches by the black leader.

One has the distinct impression that Schwantner has tried to produce something along the lines of A Lincoln Portrait, certainly a masterpiece of the genre, and comparisons are in­evitable. Both works attempt a tasteful evocation of patriotic sentiment—a difficult endeavor, especially in today’s world when reactions to such efforts can vary widely, from jaded cynicism, to begrudging acknowledgment, to sincere pride and nobility, depending on one’s temperamental susceptibility as well as one’s political feelings. I have always found Sandburg’s presentation of Lincoln’s words to be quite sensitive and, indeed, inspiring. And, despite a general distaste for pieces that include narration, I find Copland’s music so ideally suited to its subject and so effectively constructed around the spoken portions that I never fail to admire it when I encounter it during the normal course of things; and my reaction seems to be echoed by most people, judging from the reception it is usually accorded. A Lincoln Portrait differs significantly from Schwantner’s piece in its use of folk melodies as thematic source material, giving it a more overtly national flavor than the more recent work displays. On this disc, incidentally, Copland’s piece is given a performance of breadth and richness, read ably by William Warfield. I would recommend this as a good choice for anyone seeking a new recording of the piece.

From the standpoint of a general concert audience hearing it for the first time, New Morning for the World achieves much the same sort of inspired nobility—indeed, I suspect many will be quite bowled over by it. Here, more than in any of his previous works known to me, Schwantner embraces the symphony orchestra’s capacity for richly romantic expression, thereby enhancing the almost hypnotic intensity of King’s words. The work builds to a climax of great emotional power, which some listeners will liken to a corresponding point in Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra. Yet, for the reasons described earlier, repeated listening, while not destroying my enjoyment of the work, has made me more aware of its rather obvious weaknesses and over-calculated effects. It is somewhat like weeping at a sentimental melo­drama, while being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response. New Morning for the World  is too long by a good one-third, padded by superfluous repetition, and too dependent on increases in orchestral texture and dynamic level as means of heightening its emotional impact.

Former baseball star Willie Stargell, who has been the sole narrator of Schwantner s work since its premiere, is given top billing on the disc. The contrivance of this gesture is mitigated by the fact that Stargell serves as an excellent speaker. Although ostensibly in­experienced in such a role, he captures the almost incantorial rhythms of King’s prose with remarkable sensitivity. The orchestra performs superbly, as it generally does on its record­ings. The sound quality is also up to Eastman/Mercury’s usual high standards, although it is cut at a very low decibel level, so that a high gain setting is necessary.

George Walker’s eight-minute Eastman Overture is an uncomfortable attempt to create a breezy, concise piece in an essentially Berg-like, expressionistic vein. The Overture shows a degree of competence, but its incompatible elements prove unwieldy. Whether one likes the piece or not, however, it certainly deserves more commentary than the one sentence it is granted on the liner. In keeping with the informal, “everyman” sort of concept behind this disc, virtually no program notes are included. What little there are concentrate on Stargell’s cliché-ridden account of the experience of performing with an orchestra (“… it’s a BIG jump from the ballpark to Carnegie Hall!” ). I join my colleagues in protesting the decline in quality and quantity of program notes supplied by the major record companies. This is an insult to the consumer that should be recognized as such.

HOVHANESS Symphony No. 1, “Exile” (original version). COPLAND Symphony No. 2, “Short.” MILHAUD Symphony No. 1. SEREBRIER Symphony No. 1.

HOVHANESS Symphony No. 1, “Exile” (original version). COPLAND Symphony No. 2, “Short.” MILHAUD Symphony No. 1.  SEREBRIER Symphony No. 1. ● Leopold Stokowski, cond; NBC SO; Houston SO ● GUILD GHCD-2347 (72:51) Live: 12/6/1942; 1/9/1944; 3/21/1943; 11/4/1957

This recent release will be of interest to committed Stokowski enthusiasts, as well as to serious admirers of the composers represented; however, more general listeners are referred elsewhere. I write as a devoted—but not unqualified—admirer of the conductor and of some of the composers. As may be gleaned from the headnote, the Hovhaness, Copland, and Milhaud are taken from live broadcasts with the NBC Symphony from the early 1940s; the Serebrier was taken from a live 1957  performance by the Houston Symphony.

Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 1, “Exile,” is one of the earliest of the composer’s works generally available on recording. (Listeners familiar with the often-recounted tale of the composer’s having burned all the music he had composed up to about 1942 in a giant bonfire may not realize that in truth a good deal of that music remains extant, often integrated into later works, sometimes in modified form, sometimes not.) The Symphony No. 1, “Exile,” was originally composed in 1936, when Hovhaness was 25, to commemorate the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks during the late 1910s. It was first performed for live broadcast in 1939 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of  Leslie Heward. Its subsequent rendition by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, broadcast late in 1942, marks the first auspicious orchestral performance of the composer’s work in the United States. Stokowski remained a vigorous champion of Hovhaness’s music for the rest of his life. (I recall attending a Hovhaness performance conducted by Stokowski when he was past 90.) Stokie lead the premiere in 1955 of Mysterious Mountain, the work that first brought widespread attention to the composer and his music (though its high visibility was largely the result of an RCA Victor recording featuring the Chicago Symphony under Reiner’s direction). Given the chronology, one can perhaps assume that this 1942 performance of the “Exile” Symphony represents the “original version” of the work, and this may be its chief point of interest. In 1961, a score of the symphony was published, but the performance heard here differs significantly from that score, which includes music not heard here, while some of the music heard here does not appear in that score. The version of the work recorded by the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Gerard Schwarz in 1995, conforms to the 1961 score, except for the fact that the central fast movement was replaced by an entirely new (or perhaps one should say, different) movement. What this recording clearly indicates is that the kind of music Hovhaness composed before the legendary bonfire did not differ all that much from the music he wrote afterwards, although perhaps not immediately afterwards. The replacement of the second movement changes the overall character of the work quite significantly, as the original movement, remarkably simplistic, is also vehement and brutal, while the movement that replaced it is much more gentle and intermezzo-like. The other major point of interest is just how freely and spontaneously the orchestra played under Stokowski: Soloists played in an almost improvisatory fashion, the written rhythms serving as little more than suggestions. In tutti passages a sense of rhythmic pulse is often barely discernable. While one may applaud Stokowski’s encouragement of spontaneity in principle, I can’t imagine that any listener would prefer his performance of this work to Schwarz’s, which is more than a mere approximation of the score.

The performance of Copland’s Symphony No. 2, “Short,” is also of considerable historical interest. As with the Hovhaness, this 1944 reading of the 1933 work is also an “American premiere,” the first performance having taken place several years earlier in Mexico, under the direction of Carlos Chavez. Stokowski was a uniquely gifted conductor, but Copland—especially the Copland of the “Short” Symphony—was really the antithesis of the sort of music at which Stokowski excelled. Its crisp articulation, constantly edgy rhythmic shifts, and spiky gestures were light-years away from the opulent sensuality and emotional immediacy that prompted the maestro’s special gifts. What is also notable is the challenge faced by the NBC Symphony—generally considered one of America’s finest orchestras at the time—in maintaining a coherent sense of ensemble in playing this work. A comparison with the recent Naxos recording, with Marin Alsop leading the Bournemouth Symphony, shows the latter to be far more adept at managing the work’s irregularities—not to mention the London Symphony as conducted by the composer himself. The “Short” Symphony is one of those works from which Copland backed off—at least temporarily—in devising a more populist style, thereby ingratiating himself with the public. Heard today the work—one of Copland’s finest—seems clearly cut from the same cloth as Appalachian Spring, if not quite so “Americana.”

Darius Milhaud, a composer whose fecundity is comparable to that of Hovhaness, is similarly represented on this disc by his Symphony No. 1, although his roster of thirteen symphonies doesn’t come close to matching Hovhaness’s 67. His first essay in the form, his Op. 210, appeared during a period of considerable duress for Milhaud. It was composed in 1939, shortly before the composer, a Jew, fled with his family to the United States to escape the Nazis, though he was forced to leave his parents behind to perish during the German occupation. As if this wasn’t enough, he had just suffered his first attack of the severe rheumatoid arthritis that eventually crippled him. So one might expect this to be a work characterized by profound distress. But not from Milhaud. The symphony, in four predominantly fast movements, is largely sunny in spirit, jauntily displaying the congested polytonality that is one of his more consistent characteristics. Annotator Robert Matthew-Walker calls it “one of the greatest French symphonies of the 20th century.” Although it doesn’t face a tremendous amount of competition in that category, I would sooner grant the distinction to one of the symphonies of Henry Barraud (a composer sorely in need of revival and reconsideration). As there is at least one modern recording of the work, this performance will appeal chiefly to those with special interest in either composer or conductor.

The program concludes with the Symphony No. 1 of José Serebrier. Serebrier, now in his 70s, has enjoyed a long and active career—primarily as a conductor, but as a composer as well—but one that has followed an unusual course, unlike the path followed by most internationally celebrated conductors. Born and educated in Uruguay, but of Russian-Polish ancestry, he displayed a precocious talent. Coming to the United States while still in his teens, he studied conducting with George Szell, and was discovered by Stokowski when he was 19. The conductor took him on as an apprentice, appointing him assistant conductor of the newly formed American Symphony Orchestra during the early 1960s. Functioning under the radar for many years, Serebrier has lately been the beneficiary of considerable attention for his recent recordings, and his own compositions are now well represented in the catalog. I have long been an admirer of his Symphony No. 2, “Partita”—and would not hesitate to describe it as the most satisfying Latin American-flavored work known to me—although none of his other works has impressed me as deeply.

Serebrier completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1956, when he was 18, and Stokowski conducted the premiere the following year. (The amusing story of how this came about is recounted in the liner notes.) The work comprises a single movement, beginning slowly in the lower strings in a manner reminiscent of the opening of Creston’s Second Symphony, and immediately exhibits the character of a passacaglia, although I don’t believe that it hews strictly to the principles of that genre. A theme is introduced and developed through a dissonant counterpoint that calls Hindemith to mind. What is most interesting about the work is the way this theme evolves from a somber, dissonant context, gradually becoming increasingly straightforward and outgoing, finally ending  in diatonic triumph. The performance by the Houston Symphony does the work justice, but is far outclassed in every respect by the Bournemouth Symphony recording released recently by Naxos, under the composer’s own direction. Readers who are intrigued by Serebrier are encouraged to pursue his many recordings, as well as the readily available information about his unconventional but highly productive career.

DIVERSE VOICES: American Music for Flute. L. Leibermann Flute Sonata. Copland Duo for Flute and Piano. Sierra Flute Sonata. Schoenfield Achat Sha’alti. Ufaratsta. E. Hill This Floating World.

DIVERSE VOICES: American Music for Flute ● Linda Chatterton (fl); John Jensen (pn) ● LC8032 (52:19)
L. LIEBERMANN Flute Sonata. COPLAND Duo for Flute and Piano. SIERRA Flute Sonata. SCHOENFIELD Achat Sha’alti. Ufaratsta. E. HILL This Floating World

This is a nicely varied program of American flute music, mostly with piano, available from www.lindachatterton.com. Both flutist and pianist are currently based in the Minneapolis area. In addition to maintaining an active performing schedule, Linda Chatterton offers presentations on the psychology of performance—a subject of growing research interest, as well as practical application. John Jensen is well known as the pianist of the Mirecourt Trio, whose many recordings have drawn attention to some of the masterpieces of the 20th-century piano trio repertoire. Their performances here are very fine, showcasing the music to optimal advantage.
            
The best-known work on the program is the Duo by Aaron Copland. Dating from 1971, it is one of his last compositions. Over the four decades since then, it has become one of the most often-performed pieces in the flute/piano repertoire. It is an unpretentious piece in three movements, less than 15 minutes in duration. Easily identifiable as a work of Copland, it recalls many of the stylistic features familiar from his most popular compositions, shaped in a pleasing, satisfying manner.
            
Almost as popular as the Copland is the 1987 Sonata for Flute and Piano by Lowell Liebermann, one of the most successful of today’s composers who adhere to a traditional tonal language. Like much of his music, the Flute Sonata exudes the vague aroma of Prokofiev, but not so much as to be distracting. The first of its two movements is slow, rhapsodic, and quite deeply expressive. The second movement, about one-third the duration of the first, is a light-hearted romp.
           
Now in his late 50s, Puerto Rico-born Roberto Sierra is another of today’s more frequently-performed composers. The recently-released Naxos recording of his three symphonies conveys the impression that much of his music embraces aspects of Latin-American ethnic styles, sometimes in a more populist vein, at others in a more abstract, rarefied fashion. The three-movement Flute Sonata of 2003 falls into the latter category, the Hispanic elements only coming obviously to the fore in the final movement.
           
Edie Hill was born in New York City in 1962, but studied with Lloyd Ultan and Libby Larsen in Minnesota, where she is currently based. This Floating World for unaccompanied flute comprises musical commentaries on five haiku by Basho. Unaccompanied—or barely accompanied—flute seems to be a frequent recourse for composers seeking to capture a spare, Japanese flavor. Listeners whose experience confirms this observation will know what to expect here. Hill’s effort is imaginative, evocative, and uses the instrument effectively, including a few unconventional usages. Nothing about it is ugly or unpleasant, but nothing is especially striking either.

The two short pieces by Paul Schoenfield are arrangements derived from improvisations on Chassidic melodies. They are pleasant examples, heard here in tasteful settings.

COPLAND Dance Symphony. Symphony No. 1. Symphony No. 2, “Short Symphony”

COPLAND Dance Symphony. Symphony No. 1. Symphony No. 2, “Short Symphony” – Marin Alsop, cond; Bournemouth SO – NAXOS 8.559359 (58:40)

Aaron Copland is not usually thought of as belonging to the “American symphonic school,” usually associated with William Schuman, Walter Piston, Peter Mennin et al. On the other hand, his Symphony No. 3 would probably be on most lists of “greatest American symphonies.” But since he didn’t number his symphonies in a strict chronological sequence, his relationship to this formal genre has tended to be vague and unclear. Additional reasons for this lack of clarity will be apparent in the paragraph that follows.

Copland wrote his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1923; this was the piece that prompted conductor Walter Damrosch’s legendary remark to the effect that if Copland can write music like this at the age of 23, in five years he’ll be ready to commit murder. However, anticipating that a symphony with organ would not likely be performed frequently, he wrote an alternate version of the work for orchestra alone in 1928, scoring the organ material for other instruments. This he called his Symphony No. 1. But predictions of the future of classical works are notoriously unreliable. As it happens, the Organ Symphony holds a modest place in the Copland repertoire, while the Symphony No. 1 is rarely heard at all. In fact, if I am not mistaken, this release offers the only version currently available on recording—one of the main virtues of this disc. Meanwhile, also during the early 1920s, Copland fashioned the score for a horrifying ballet inspired by a viewing of Murnau’s classic film Nosferatu. The ballet never materialized, so a few years later Copland reshaped the music into a three-movement orchestral work he called Dance Symphony. But he didn’t give it a number because it wasn’t a “true” symphony in that it did not conform to the customary structure of symphonic form (not that that stopped many other composers of symphonies). Then, in 1933 he composed the work best known today as Short Symphony. When he composed his Symphony No. 3 in 1946, he decided to identify the Short Symphony as Symphony No. 2. So there you have it.

Looking more deeply at the music itself, one observes that all three works date from the composer’s early years, yet their stylistic origins and affinities differ considerably. Few listeners are likely to identify Dance Symphony as a work of Copland, although those who are especially astute may find some clues in the third movement. But it is most closely related to the grotesque post-Le Sacre style represented by, say, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, or, perhaps closer to home, Roger Sessions’s incidental music to The Black Maskers, which may be the most relevant point for comparison, as it written at just about the same time. As with the Sessions, it may not be representative of its composer, but it is a very exciting and engaging work, with qualities that may readily be termed “balletic.” Copland acknowledged the influence of Florent Schmitt—quite highly regarded at the time—on the second movement, “Dance of the Girl who Moves as if in a Dream.” This is perhaps the work’s strongest movement, with a romantic moodiness and sense of drama that did not remain salient to the composer’s mature creative persona. The title of the third movement, “Dance of Mockery,” is most apt, and also boasts some excitingly effective music, although the main thematic idea goes through a rather grating transformation reminiscent of a cat’s meow. Marin Alsop leads the Bournemouth Symphony in a stunning performance of this work.

Although, as noted earlier, the Symphony No. 1 was composed at about the same time as the Dance Symphony, it is a very different work, revealing an ungainliness and aesthetic uncertainty indicative of immaturity, while lacking the flair and appeal of the contemporaneous piece. Angular and austere for the most part, it is rather awkwardly proportioned, with passages that seem strident and aggressive to no convincing expressive purpose. Again, while the astute listener may pick up some hints of the Copland-yet-to-come in the scherzo movement, the symphony provides few clues to its authorship. This scherzo, however, is by far the most attractive portion of the work, with appealing polyrhythmic and syncopated effects. Although the symphony may be one of the composer’s weaker efforts, I must confess a preference for this orchestra-only version; I find that the organ-with-orchestra treatment exacerbates the ungainly aspects of the work.

With the Short Symphony we encounter the mature Copland, although not the composer of the popular works of Americana; that side of his work had yet to appear. While instantly identifiable as Copland from the first measure, this composition reflects the neo-classicism of Stravinsky as filtered through an American lens. The composer himself considered it to be one of his most important works, noting its “complex rhythms combined with clear textures.” In addition to being both gripping and compelling, it is also one of the first major examples of American orchestral neo-classicism. At the time of its composition, orchestras found its constantly shifting meters and accents to be extraordinarily difficult (although it could probably be sight-read by most orchestras today). For this reason Copland created an alternate version for clarinet, piano, and string quartet that would be easier to coordinate. Today it is heard in both its original orchestral guise and the reduced version, known as Sextet. But even the orchestral version has a “chamber music” feeling to it, as the instrumentation omits lower brasses as well as percussion. Here I must observe that Alsop/Bournemouth’s rendering of the third movement is rather timid and reticent, resulting in something of a let-down. Copland’s own recording is somewhat stronger and more incisive, if at the expense of some clarity and precision.

Although two of these three works are not “mainstream Copland,” they represent significant stages of his artistic development, and all three are essential to a full understanding of the composer. Previous recorded performances of these works have both strengths and weaknesses; none are wholly satisfactory. While this new performance of the Short Symphonyalso falls short of ideal, the disc as a whole represents good value for Copland aficionados.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN PORTRAITS: Works by IVES, PERSICHETTI, HARRIS, BACON, GOULD, McKAY, TUROK, and COPLAND.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN PORTRAITS • Leonard Slatkin, cond; Nashville SO; Nashville S Ch; Barry Scott (nar); Sharon Mabry (mez); Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (vn); Anthony LaMarchina (vc); Roger Wiesmeyer (pn)

IVES Lincoln, the Great Commoner. PERSICHETTI A Lincoln AddressHARRISAbraham Lincoln Walks at MidnightBACON Ford’s Theatre. GOULD Lincoln Legend. McKAY To a Liberator. TUROK Variations on an American Song. COPLAND A Lincoln Portrait • NAXOS 8.559373-74 (2CDs: 112:37)

According to the program notes, the eight works on this two-CD set were selected from some 90 compositions written in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln. Presumably these were the ones that offered the most musical interest, but I remain curious about the others—partly because I found most of these eight to be somewhat disappointing. Each attempts to balance patriotic concerns with musical ones, with varying degrees of success.

The longest piece of music is Ernst Bacon’s Ford’s Theatre, a 30-minute suite of twelve short pieces originally conceived as incidental music to a play by Paul Horgan, called, Death, Mr. President. Evidently the play was not a success. Each of the pieces is suggested by an incident that took place during the week preceding Lincoln’s assassination. Ernst Bacon (1898-1970) was not only a composer, but also a conductor, a painter, and a collector of folksongs. Other compositions of his have left me with the impression that his work warrants more attention than it receives these days. However, this suite, composed during the 1940s, does not make a convincing case for that contention. One movement, entitled “The River Queen,” has some lovely moments; and the music is pleasant enough on the whole, but it offers little of compelling interest. 

This is the problem with several of the selections: pleasant enough, but not really compelling as music. George Frederick McKay (1899-1970) was the Eastman School’s first composition graduate (in 1923, before Howard Hanson’s arrival there), and spent 40 years on the faculty of the University of Washington. To a Liberator was composed in 1940, and uses Lincoln as a symbol of democracy during the period of aggressive fascism in Europe. His piece purports to be an expression of his personal feelings while contemplating Lincoln. It is pleasant, euphonious music, but leaves little lasting impression. Similarly, Variations on an American Song by composer-critic Paul Turok (b. 1929), focuses on a simple ditty, “Lincoln and Liberty,” based originally on an Irish tune. His variations, which utilize only the notes that appear in the original song, are very artfully elaborated, but do not compel interest.

I am one of those who feels that the importance of Charles Ives has been greatly overstated by those commentators who assert that he successfully fills the role of “America’s first truly original composer.” Yes, that would make for a nice, orderly account of American musical history—except that after many decades of listening I remain unconvinced of the outstanding merit of Ives’s music. Lincoln, the Great Commoner, touted by Henry Cowell as “one of the most unusual and exciting works in choral literature,” is to my ears just another congested potpourri of American song fragments.

A little more interesting than the Bacon, McKay, and Turok is Morton Gould’s Lincoln Legend. Gould (1913-1996) was a very active figure in American musical life from the late 1930s up through the 1950s, when his name was a household word, although his reputation was based largely on his work in the area of commercial/popular music and “light classics.” But he also wrote symphonies and other more ambitious works, which were performed in some of the most auspicious venues. For example, the 1942 premiere of Lincoln Legend was conducted by Toscanini. Gould displayed an extraordinary technical sophistication that was not matched by expressive content of comparable depth. An unabashed musical nationalist, he admitted freely that virtually all his music, regardless of its aspirations as “serious” work, drew upon vernacular musical material. In his more ambitious efforts he would typically subject this material to complex developmental procedures that often seemed disproportionately overwrought, relative to the composition’s actual aesthetic, emotional, and psychological weight. Lincoln Legend is a 17-minute “symphonic poem” in several sections of contrasting moods and dynamics. Through it are interwoven various American songs, most notably “The Old Grey Mare” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As clever as its workmanship may be, the ultimate impact is vacuous. In a sense Gould was a slick, less pretentious variant of Ives, although this comparison will probably infuriate proponents of both composers. Maybe it’s a weakness on my part, but hearing “The Old Grey Mare” treated symphonically does not get my pulse racing.

Roy Harris’s reputation has plummeted dramatically since the days when he was touted as one of America’s “greats”—a fall from grace quite justified by the overall quality of his work. As is well known, Harris attempted to fabricate and exploit a personal connection to Lincoln, claiming to have been born in a log cabin on February 12, in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. However, his 1953 setting of Vachel Lindsay’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, scored for mezzo-soprano and piano trio, manages to avoid many of his most annoying mannerisms, and is actually one of the more interesting pieces on this program, with some arresting moments. But it is no masterpiece, lacking any sense of dramatic contour; it just seems to keep going until it stops, which is, of course, the problem with his symphonic works. This weakness is not overcome by mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry, who, despite a lovely voice and excellent intonation, delivers the music in a monotonous fashion, which only accentuates the monotony of the music.

The story behind Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address is, I’m afraid, more interesting than the piece itself, resulting in a front page story in the New York Times. For those readers not old enough to remember, here is the story in a nutshell: In late 1971, in preparation for the activities surrounding Richard Nixon’s second inauguration as president, Persichetti had been selected by the inaugural committee to write a work for the occasion, to be performed at the Kennedy Center by the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was to be a work with spoken text, and Persichetti was asked to include excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Persichetti agreed and set to work, although he was given little time to produce the composition. However, what with the controversial war in Vietnam still raging, along with intense anti-war protests, the committee began to have second thoughts about Lincoln’s address, which included comments about “the scourge of war,” which, they felt, might embarrass Nixon under the current circumstances. So they began to request deletions from the text. At first Persichetti—a gentle, conciliatory fellow—went along with these requests, at which point he had only three weeks to complete the work. Working quickly, he finished the piece by the deadline. But now more deletions were requested. At this point Persichetti refused. So the inaugural committee took the piece off the program. This was front-page news: The work’s non-performance drew more attention to the composer than any performance of his music ever had. And, of course, the piece was promptly played by orchestras all over the country. However, given the time pressure under which he was working, what Persichetti had done was to take portions of his Symphony No. 7, “Liturgical,” and insert the Lincoln excerpts at appropriate points. Music being highly susceptible to the power of suggestion, the result fit the text just fine. But the music—here as in its original symphonic context—is rather cold and impersonal; it is not Persichetti at his best. However, the performance offered here is extremely flattering to the work. Barry Scott offers a fine reading of Lincoln’s words; and Leonard Slatkin, one of today’s most sympathetic and effective advocates for the “American symphonic school,” leads a sensitive performance that makes one long for him to take on the Symphony No. 7 itself. He might be just the conductor to bring this work to life.

And this brings us to the one well-known work on the program: Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait. Longtime Fanfare readers may be aware that my reactions often go against the grain of received opinion. However, there is no getting around the fact that Copland’s work simply dwarfs everything else offered on these two CDs. Many people have an aversion to works with narrators, and I count myself among them. But there are exceptions, and A Lincoln Portrait is one of them. By now I have heard this work at least a hundred times, and it still moves me deeply—the text, the music, the whole thing. Like the Gould work, this piece too weaves American folk tunes into the symphonic fabric. But it works because Copland does not twist them out of their natural settings; the context in which he places them is in keeping with their characters. Again Barry Scott provides an excellent rendition of the text, and Slatkin leads one of the most well-shaped performances of the work I have ever heard. He and the Nashville Symphony are excellent throughout these recordings, but this is most noticeable to me in the two works I know best. I am not privy to the machinations behind the scenes concerning Slatkin, the Nashville Symphony, and Naxos, but while the other record companies ignore the American symphonic repertoire, Naxos is bringing this music much-deserved attention. Like Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, Slatkin and Nashville are a winning combination.

AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC. PERSICHETTI: Flower Songs. CORIGLIANO: Fern Hill. COPLAND: In the Beginning. FOSS: Behold, I Build an House. IVES: Psalm 90

AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC • James Morrow, cond; University of Texas Chamber Singers and Chamber Orchestra; Susanne Mentzer (mez) • NAXOS 8.559299 (72:11)
PERSICHETTI Flower Songs. CORIGLIANO Fern Hill. COPLAND In the Beginning. FOSS Behold, I Build an House. IVES Psalm 90

This recent Naxos release offers a selection of significant American choral music, meticulously performed and recorded. Although I was not previously familiar with their work, the University of Texas Chamber Singers, based in Austin, have been around for half a century now, and their current conductor, James Morrow, has brought them to a very high standard. Their performances here display considerable sensitivity and refinement, with precise intonation, and exquisite tonal blend and balance. And mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer renders the solo portions of these works with considerable artistry, although at times her voice reveals a hard edge.

I must confess to finding the program itself of somewhat uneven musical interest. The two strongest works easily justify acquisition of the disc, while the three others … Well, I’m sure they will hold appeal for some listeners. The major offering here is, without question, the Persichetti Flower Songs, presented in their first recording. With a duration of approximately twenty minutes, they were composed in 1983, and are among the composer’s final works. He had not written for chorus in almost a decade, and this final contribution was something of a farewell to the medium, as well as a farewell to one of his favorite and most often-set poets, E. E. Cummings. Persichetti seemed to find in Cummings something of a kindred spirit, with a verbal playfulness and an impish sense of humor that often camouflaged a serious idea. Although many of the composer’s major works from the preceding two decades were rather austere in character, harsh in their musical language, and complex in construction, these settings of seven poems selected from throughout the poet’s career, but all sharing the flower as a metaphor, are irresistibly gracious and delightful, exhibiting the lively exuberance missing from Persichetti’s more “serious” choral settings. Although their musical language reveals a simplicity of texture and line, with largely consonant, tonal harmony, they display no less care and attention to detail than do his more challenging works. On first hearing they may appear to be—though attractive and accessible—simple and perhaps somewhat ordinary; however, closer inspection reveals that virtually nothing about them is ordinary, routine, or accidental. Every articulation, every rhythmic irregularity is carefully calculated. The third song, “Early Flowers,” incorporates in disguised form the same hymn (“Round me falls the night”) used in the second movement of the composer’s Symphony No. 6. Flower Songs towers above most of the other pieces on the program, and its presence here is an important addition to the Persichetti discography. 

John Corigliano’s setting of Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill has been recorded several times before. It is one of the composer’s earliest works, written in 1959-60. More recently, Corigliano fashioned A Dylan Thomas Trilogy, with Fern Hill as the opening work. Yet despite its early position in the composer’s oeuvre, it too is composed with masterful attention to detail. Its sensibility and musical language shamelessly embrace the expressive world of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, though its retrospective evocation of the carefree freedom of youth, a natural complement to the James Agee text set by Barber, is largely free of the latter’s melancholy overlay. Even the orchestration has the same crisp Stravinskian transparency combined with the American’s delicacy and sensitivity. Yet despite its clear derivation, Fern Hill is truly a beautiful and deeply touching work, evoking a sense of mood with remarkable technical mastery and expressive sophistication for a 22-year-old composer. Listeners with more traditional tastes are likely to consider it among his best work. In fact, though I know that many feel otherwise, I have long felt that Corigliano betrayed a great gift when he turned away from the discipline of candid self-revelation, reaching instead for immediate theatrical impact in ways that have at times tended toward the meretricious. Although he has accomplished the latter with great skill and effectiveness, achieving much success in the process, he might have attained a higher, more enduring type of success had he pursued a more personal, introspective path. Fern Hill is a prime example of the “road not taken.”

Though performed beautifully, the three other pieces offer much less musical interest. Copland’s In the Beginning, composed in 1947, is by far the most often heard of his few choral works. Though a pleasant enough piece, it lacks the incisiveness that characterizes his best compositions. Barely recognizable as a work of Copland, it even has moments that call Vaughan Williams and Britten to mind. Written in 1950 for the opening of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University, Lukas Foss’s Behold, I Build an House is a short cantata whose biblical text describes the building of King Solomon’s temple. Scored for chorus with interludes for organ (played ably here by Seung Won Cho), it is not as compelling as other Foss works from this period, such as Psalms, A Parable of Death, and Song of Songs, although their appeal is largely second-hand. Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 occupied him on and off throughout his career; he didn’t complete the work until 1924. The result veers among passages that are alternately striking, banal, awkward, and dull.

All in all, a mixed bag. I trust that readers will know whether or not this disc belongs in their collections. One final point: No texts are included. With a recording comprising sung texts exclusively, this is hard to justify. Yes, I suppose that these literary and biblical sources can be found through other means. But in today’s marketplace, this must be regarded as an incomplete package. By now Naxos has built a reputation for excellent performances and recordings of an exceedingly broad range of repertoire; their packaging now must be brought up to that standard.

THE RED VIOLIN. CORIGLIANO: The Red Violin (Chaconne). RAVEL: Violin Sonata. MORAVEC: Ariel Fantasy. Double Action. Evermore. COPLAND: Ukelele Serenade. Nocturne.

THE RED VIOLIN • Maria Bachmann (vn); Jon Klibonoff (pn) • ENDEAVOR CLASSICS END-1020 (63:58)

CORIGLIANO: The Red Violin (Chaconne). RAVEL: Violin Sonata. MORAVEC: Ariel Fantasy. Double ActionEvermore. COPLAND: Ukelele SerenadeNocturne.

This recent release will appeal to a fairly broad range of listeners, which is, no doubt, the intention of the producers. What this entails, however, is some of the “gushy” verbal hyperbole associated with “crossover” releases. Nevertheless, there is some very good music here, very well played, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Perhaps most impressive is the Chaconne for violin and piano that John Corigliano shaped from his Academy Award-winning score to the film The Red Violin (2000). (This is not to be confused with the full-length Red Violin Concerto, of which the Chaconne is its first movement. [Corigliano usually manages to spin off several separate entities from each creative effort.]) Recently, while reviewing his very early choral work, Fern Hill, I speculated as to how Corigliano’s creative development might have evolved, had he pursued the more personal sort of self-expression found in that and other of his pre-1970 works. I think that this Chaconne is an answer to that speculation. It is a very powerful, moving work that explores a rich vein of darkly haunted neo-romanticism. It also may be seen as a turn-of-the-21st-century answer to Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, a tour de force that exploits the full range of virtuoso violin techniques. Bachmann’s performance is brilliant.

Maria Bachmann is a fabulous violinist, who combines a lusciously rich tone with razor-sharp technical precision; her pianist Jon Klibonoff displays an equivalent level of artistry. They form two-thirds of the Trio Solisti (with the addition of cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach). Trio Solisti are an extraordinary piano trio whose playing I have enjoyed immensely on several occasions. They have associated themselves closely with the compelling music of Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Moravec, and the association has certainly been mutually beneficial. It was Bachmann who, after performing Moravec’s wonderfully exuberant, perpetual-motion Ariel Fantasy, suggested that he expand it into a larger work. The result was the Tempest Fantasy, written for Trio Solisti, the work which eventually went on to earn him the Pulitzer. Moravec’s Double Action is another brief, rhythmically zesty effort, while Evermore, written for Ms. Bachmann’s wedding, displays Moravec’s ability to spin a pure, simple, pretty melody, quite different from the mercurial effervescence characteristic of so much of his music.

Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano is, of course, a masterpiece. Its connection to the rest of this program is its second movement, “Blues,” which links it to the otherwise American program—especially, with the Copland and Gershwin pieces, which all have their roots in American vernacular music.

However, herein lies my main criticism of the recital: For whatever reason—perhaps related to Bachmann’s effort to reach a “crossover” market—in the Gershwin selections, the Copland Ukelele Serenade (a horrible title and a horrible piece), and the slow movement of the Ravel, the violinist exaggerates the bluesy slides and other vernacular touches to the point of excess. The result is rather like a Shakespearean actor reading the “Uncle Remus” tales in dialect, and it largely vitiates the intended effect.

On the other hand, Bachmann plays the outer movements of the Ravel spectacularly well. And she plays the Copland Nocturne with impeccable taste. This appealing 7-minute piece, composed in Paris in 1926, vividly evokes the image of an American sitting alone contemplatively in a smoke-filled Parisian bar during the wee hours of the morning. 

All in all, a worthy effort that leans just a little too far over the line.