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: Symph. No. 2. String Quartet. Suite for Viola and Piano. VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartet No. 6. IVES: Symph. No. 2. RAVEL: Intro & Allegro. DEBUSSY: Danses Sacree et Profane. HEIDEN: Sonata for Viola and Piano. Music by Rochberg, Turina & Carter.

CRESTON: Symphony No. 2. IVES: Symphony No. 2. Neeme Jarvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. CHANDOS CHAN-9390 [DDD]; 56:37. Produced by Ralph Couzens and Charles Greenwell.

CRESTON: String Quartet. VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartet No. 6. RAVEL: Introduction and Allegro. DEBUSSY: Danses Sacree et Profane. TURINA: La Oracion del Torero. Hollywood String Quartet; Ann Mason Stockton, harp; Arthur Gleghorn, flute; Mitchell Lurie, clarinet; Felix Slatkin conducting the Concert Artists String. TESTAMENT SBT-1053 [ADD]; 72:35. Reissue produced by Stewart Brown; originals produced by Richard Jones and Robert Myers.

CRESTON: Suite for Viola and Piano. HEIDEN: Sonata for Viola and Piano. ROCHBERG: Sonata for Viola and Piano. CARTER: Elegy. Lawrence Wheeler, viola; Ruth Tomfohrde, piano. ALBANY TROY-141 [DDD]; 57:13. Produced by John Gladney Proffitt.

The big news here is the new recording of Paul Creston’s Symphony No. 2 — perhaps his most fully consummated work and one of the most distinguished fruits from the bountiful crop of American symphonies that appeared during the 1940s — a crop that also includes Schuman’s Third, Piston’s Second, Copland’s Third, Barber’s Second, and Hanson’s Fourth. What places Creston’s Second near the top of this list is its remarkable individuality and originality. Composed in 1944, the work was first performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Artur Rodzinski, and was subsequently received enthusiastically by audiences throughout the world, until the late 1950s, when American symphonic music largely disappeared from concert programs . The symphony is a bold and uncompromising illustration of Creston’s aesthetic priorities: the primacy of song and dance as the fundamental musical gestures. This manifesto is expressed through a rich and robust language derived from the harmonic colors of Impressionism and the rhythmic emphasis of Le Sacre, and executed with a logical linear clarity stemming from years of reverential study of the works of Bach. Part of what makes Creston’s Second so remarkable is the compositional sleight-of-hand by which its tightly focused developmental metamorphosis of a long-arching twelve-tone theme is embodied within a warm hearted, generously-spirited, kinetically infectious musical shape whose design is sui generis. The effect is spontaneous and immediately engaging, while increasingly satisfying with greater familiarity.

The work is structured in two movements, each divided into two parts. A sensuously long-spun, contrapuntal exposition of the bas: theme is followed by a lush extroverted, full-throated “song” treatment. The strongly contrasting second movement begins with a defiant, ominous “interlude” that leads directly into the “dance, a kind of Creston specialty in which a single theme is developed through an array of improvisatory, jazz-like variations bouncing over syncopated polyrhythmicostinato patterns, finally culminating in an ingenious recapitulation of all significant prior elements. Despite the immediacy of its impact, the work’s appeal is abstract and choreographic, rather than emotional or dramatic.

This is the third commercial recording of Creston’s Second Symphony. The first was a solid reading from the early 1950s, featuring the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Howard Mitchell. That Westminster disc, paired with Creston’s Third, re-appeared in a variety of incarnations for many years the work’s second recording (Koch International 3-7036-2H1 Fanfare 14:6, pp. 143-4) did not appear until 1999. That rendition — part of an all-Creston disc featured the Krakow Philharmonic under the direction of David Amos, and suffered from the Polish orchestra’s inability to grasp the intricacies and nuances of this quintessentially American work, at least within the time available. In this new Detroit Symphony recording Neeme Jarvi moves the first movement along rather briskly, with some loss of the rich, organ-like bass-lines. However, his lighter tread also mitigates some of the movement’s more heavy-handed moments. The second movement is played with considerable precision, the rhythmic intricacies delineated with great transparency.  But the “dance” never really cuts loose and swings into the exuberant Dionysian orgy it is intended to be. The result is a solid, sober performance, considerably more accurate and refined than the Polish reading, but not yet the full realization that the work still awaits.

Creston’s String Quartet is an early work, dating from 1936, before he had arrived at his mature language. At this time Creston’s music was a rather strange amalgam of Baroque textures and patterns and Impressionist harmony. (The String Quartet strongly resembles the as-yet-unrecorded Piano Sonata which followed it sequentially but is a superior work, owing to more individual character and more imaginative material.) The first and last movements are rather mechanical, with little expressive content, while the second movement is a jocular scherzo. The high point of the work is its third movement, a heartfelt “Andante ecclesiastico“, alternately solemn and tender with a poignant warmth. This movement is often played alone in an arrangement for string orchestra, under the title Gregorian Chant (see Fanfare 17:4, p. 168). The tight, accurate, and energetic performance by the Hollywood String Quartet dates from 1953. Unavailable for many years, its reissue is most welcome, since the work has never been recorded since then, although, for some reason, the sound quality, with restricted frequency and dynamic range, seems more primitive for the Creston than for the other pieces on the disc. 

The Albany disc offers the premiere recording of Creston’s Suite for Viola and Piano, Composed only one year after the String Quartet, this work shows a considerable advance in maturity sophistication, and self confidence, exemplifying the warm, good-humored, French style neoclassicism of such rather chamber works as the well-known Saxophone Sonata, the Violin SuiteCello Suite, and Piano Trio. Again the slow movement, entitled “Air,” is the strongest, and is reminiscent of the “Gregorian Chant” movement from the String Quartet. Unfortunately, violist Lawrence Wheeler and pianist Ruth Tomfohrde, play this movement too quickly to fulfill its intended effect, although the remainder of their performance is quite adequate.


The Detroit Symphony disc also contains a rendition of Ives’ Second Symphony. Although I will leave a thorough comparison of recorded performances to James North, my impression is that Jarvi has shaped a solid, European-style reading of the work, emphasizing its roots in the syntax of Brahms and Dvorak, despite exuberant and mischievous intrusions of vernacular elements of Americana.

John Wiser’s comments about the Hollywood String Quartet disc appear in Fanfare18:5 (p. 217). I will add that the remainder of the program presents a most suitable context within which to consider the Creston Quartet. Debussy’s Danses Sacree et Profane and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro were two of Creston’s favorite pieces, and each exerted a strong and clearly audible influence on his stylistic development. Both Turina and Villa-Lobos also evolved from a Debussy/Ravel stylistic foundation, Turing in a gently Iberian direction and Villa-Lobos toward his own Bach/Impressionist/Brazil amalgamation, as idiosyncratic in its way as Creston’s. In fact, there is a tropical exoticism to some of Creston’s music — the Invocation from the Invocation and Dance — for example — that veers very close to Villa-Lobos’ aesthetic realm — an affinity remarked by other commentators as well. The Brazilian’s 1941 Quartet No. 6 is a lively, tuneful work, with contrapuntal intricacies that add depth to its appeal. These performances, all recorded between 1949 and 1953, are excellent, although many listeners may prefer more luxuriant, modern-sounding recordings of such sensuous music.

The Wheeler-Tomfohrde disc offers a handsome program of American music for viola and piano. Lawrence Wheeler is a professor at the University of Houston School of Music and a member of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. His performances are generally competent, but rather cautious and under-characterized, with some passages that suffer from intonation problems.  George Rochberg’s 1979 Viola Sonata is one of his strongest pieces known to me — straightforward and free of gimmicks. It opens with a brisk vigor reminiscent of Hindemith, but contains attractive moments of sweetness arid warmth as well. Alas, Hindemith’s name is never far away when Bernard Heiden’s music is discussed. This is a little sad, because Heiden, active at the University of Indiana for almost half a century, was a highly skillful composer whose music is thoroughly satisfying, in its earnest, contrapuntal manner, from which poetic moments are not altogether absent. But his creative voice seems never to have emerged from behind the mantle of his teacher as this 1959 Sonata illustrates. Elliott Carter’s 1943 Elegy is perhaps better known in its arrangement for string orchestra. Dating from his Coplandesque, populist period, it is attractive and innocuous.