VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Grazioso, Grit, and Gold

VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Grazioso, Grit, and Gold. by Andrea Olmstead. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 493 pp. Cloth. $110

The third quarter of the 20th century was an enormously fruitful period in American classical music, which saw the appearance of an extraordinary number of masterworks—indeed, some among the finest works produced in this country. Yet many are still largely unknown to the general public—not to mention the members of the music profession in general. Among the most significant composers who contributed to this veritable bounty was Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). Therefore the appearance of this book–the first comprehensive biography of the composer–is an auspicious occasion. (Disclosure: I met the author once in 2007, while researching my own book on the music of William Schuman, Persichetti, and Peter Mennin [Voices of Stone and Steel, also published by Rowman and Littlefield]. I have never corresponded with her, and never discussed this book with her, beyond her recent invitation for me to review it. In fact, its publication took me totally by surprise. I should add that her book cites my own writing on Persichetti quite generously.)

Andrea Olmstead’s chief accomplishments until now have probably been her four books on Roger Sessions. But perhaps her most notable and controversial achievement was her history of the Juilliard School, where she studied, which made no effort to conceal many of the less flattering aspects of the institution and the people who shaped its development. Not surprisingly, that book ruffled a lot of feathers. She has now turned her attention to Vincent Persichetti, who—like Sessions—was a member of the Juilliard faculty for many years. This latest effort reflects an extensive amount of research, providing a good deal of general background information within which to understand and appreciate the context from which Persichetti emerged: his family history, the musical life of Philadelphia, and the many musicians who played significant roles within his life. Some of this background seems to reach beyond the realm of relevance (e.g., the fact that Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell were among the musicians who emerged from south Philadelphia, as did Persichetti). But much of it is relevant as well as interesting. For example, I was quite surprised to learn that Persichetti’s parents were convicted of embezzling many thousands of dollars, for which his mother spent significant time in prison.

Another notable revelation—a suspicion I have held for some time, which is supported by Olmstead’s research—is that despite Persichetti’s reputation for extreme humility and generosity toward others, he was not above re-arranging certain historical facts in what appears to be an attempt at self-mythologizing—something that William Schuman did more flagrantly and shamelessly. Even more remarkable is another long-held contention, confirmed here by a number of observations, that while Persichetti apparently displayed truly prodigious musical gifts at an extremely early age—comparable to the gifts of history’s greatest composers—which led to pieces of remarkable sophistication before he reached the age of 20, he was somewhat late (mid 30s) in developing what was a truly personal, individual compositional identity. It seems almost as if his astounding facility interfered with the development of his own compositional voice. 

Olmstead quotes a number of people close to Persichetti who insisted that his extraordinary artistry as a pianist might readily have led to a major career as a composer-pianist, along the lines of a Rachmaninoff. But his dedication to teaching—which was assiduous, as illustrated by a number of anecdotes—was more a commitment to the future of the art form than a means of augmenting his income. A number of his colleagues seemed to feel that this commitment came at the expense of his potential fame and fortune.

The book’s subtitle comes from Persichetti’s oft-quoted comment that the two primary elements in his music are “grace” and “grit”—sometimes one and not the other, and sometimes degrees of both. The “gold” comes from a remark made to Olmstead by Roger Sessions late in his life: “Mr. Persichetti is pure gold.”

In addition to voluminous biographical information, Olmstead discusses all of Persichetti’s works, delving into structural details likely to be of interest largely to potential performers. Included also are short essays by others, including her husband, the composer and Persichetti-student Larry Bell, which focus on particular works in detail. Hopefully, Olmstead’s book will be a significant contribution to a growing interest in this composer, who is arguably one of the greatest America has produced, but who has received a paucity of serious attention. (The Juilliard School, where he taught for 40 years, many as chairman of the composition department, evidently thought that including his 7-minute Serenade for Tuba Solo on a program with music by other composers was an adequate acknowledgment of his centennial in 2015.)

I have just a few quibbles. One is that the book is rather sloppily edited: Minor errors of dates, spelling, and chronology, along with redundancies, abound. The other is an aspect of Persichetti’s personality that is touched upon but minimally explored: the role in his life played by anthropomorphized animals (culminating in his sole opera, The Sibyl), and imaginary characters in general. Persichetti, who had a strangely dry sense of humor that often left people confused as to what to take seriously and what to dismiss as playfulness, made frequent reference to characters that were figments of his imagination. Some of these were known primarily to immediate family members, but others found their way into his compositional data. For example, there was the imaginary character “Michael Needle,” identified as the commissioner of a number of his works. Other characters lived in his bathroom, in his car, and he could be heard speaking to them when others weren’t around. I am not about to claim that Persichetti was psychotic, but I do believe that if he had lived in the world of, say, retail business instead of the arts, he would have been regarded as “strange,” to say the least. Yet though Olmstead mentions all these matters in passing, she never really addresses the significance of these quirks which, I believe, are connected to important aspects of his compositional personality.

PERSICHETTI: Selected Piano Music


Vincent Persichetti was one of the most widely respected American musicians of his generation. A prolific composer, brilliant educator and lecturer, and prodigious pianist, he composed more than 150 works in virtually all genres and for virtually all performing media, while serving for 40 years on the faculty of the Juilliard School, many of them as chairman of the composition department.

During his lifetime Persichetti influenced the musical lives of thousands of people from all walks of life, and his name came to signify a comprehensive musicianship virtually unparalleled among American composers. Countless young pianists were nurtured on his easier pieces, while many other young instrumental students first experienced serious contemporary music through his works for band; church choirs turned to his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year as an inexhaustible resource, while many young composers have found his classic textbook Twentieth Century Harmony to be an indispensable tool; among professional soloists and conductors his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies stand among the masterworks of American music. Throughout his life Persichetti encouraged healthy, creative participation in music at all levels of proficiency, while shunning dogmas that advocated one compositional approach at the expense of others. He immersed himself in all aspects of music with an infectious, childlike enthusiasm devoid of pomposity.

Persichetti’s music illustrates what he saw as the future of music: a broad working vocabulary, or “common practice,” based on a fluent integration of the myriad materials and techniques that appeared during the twentieth century. In a sense, Persichetti’s vocabulary of gestures and figures and the somewhat detached way they unfold and interact form a kind of private language, from which he created his own personal expressive world. Seen in this way, the music begins to appear as a personal metaphor, with cross-references and elaborations of ideas from other pieces winking slyly at the listener, conveying enigmatic allusions that call for a particularly intuitive level of apprehension. All this is carried out with a light touch, free of solemnity or pretension, yet far from trivial. The music at times suggests an imaginary world, peopled by a large cast of cartoon-like characters, created by an eccentric master-puppeteer who amuses himself by portraying his own metaphysical vision through the interactions of his puppets. This characterization is illustrated throughout the pieces on this recording.

Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, Persichetti did not turn to the symphony for his most important statements, although he did produce the requisite nine. But he was more inclined toward sparse gestures and epigrammatic forms—indeed, many of his large works are elaborate integrations of diminutive elements. Most representative are his works for piano—some 35 pieces, including twelve sonatas, six sonatinas, a concertino, and a concerto, plus works for two pianos, and piano, four hands as well. The music spans the years 1929 to 1986, and includes pieces for pianists at all levels, from the beginning student to the advanced professional. Perhaps no composer since Scriabin has produced a body of piano music that offers such breadth of meaning, such fluency of articulation, and such richness of invention—not to mention such comprehensive and imaginative use of the instrument’s resources. Indeed, Persichetti’s piano music embodies in microcosm the all-encompassing range of his expression and comprises the most penetrating lens through which to view his formidable output.

Persichetti’s creativity was often stimulated by poetry. During the late 1930s and early 40s Persichetti composed a series of what he called Poems for Piano—a collection of sixteen character pieces, each inspired by a single line, laden with imagery, taken from modern poetry—American, for the most part. Though composed when he was still in his twenties, before his mature language had fully crystallized, these brief sketches embrace a boundless array of moods, states of mind, and approaches to piano figuration, achieved with remarkable subtlety and economy of means. Their styles range from atonality—even atonal pseudo-jazz—to the immediacy of a popular song, yet with virtually no redundancy of either meaning or technique. Especially striking are two in particular: No. 10 (“Dust in sunlight and memory in corners,” T.S. Eliot) and No. 15 (“And hung like those top jewels of the night,” Léonie Adams). This latter is one of the composer’s most straightforwardly beautiful melodies.

Persichetti’s six sonatinas were written during the early 1950s, when the composer was concentrating most intensively on music for the piano. The first three sonatinas were composed in 1950, and are rather like miniature versions of the sonatas he was writing at the time. The latter three were composed in immediate succession in 1954, and are easier both to appreciate and to play.

The Sonatina No. 1 comprises three tiny movements. It is largely simple in texture, although its language is acerbic, with relatively dissonant and often polytonal harmony, fragmentary gestures and sonorities, and attenuated tonality. Sonatina No. 2 is perhaps the most fully developed and cohesive of the group. It is a single movement, beginning with a slow, stately canon unafraid of dissonant harmonic friction, followed by a brilliant developmental scamper, with motifs of its own darting in and out of the transparent contrapuntal texture. Eventually, elements of both sections are combined, leading to an exuberant finish in C Major. Sonatina No. 3 comprises two movements—the first, gently rolling, with subtle modal shifts; and the second, rhythmically playful and affirmative in character.

The Sonatinas Nos. 4 through 6 are among the many pieces that Persichetti tailored to the abilities of beginning pianists. An essential aspect of Persichetti’s compositional personality was his connection to the inner world of the child. He devoted many of his compositional efforts to capturing this world, often in pieces that are relatively easy to play and hence, manageable by young musicians. These pieces are integral to and aesthetically consistent with the rest of his creative work, revealing musical and psychological sophistication despite their economy of means. The limitation imposed on technical difficulty was just one more constraint of the kind within which his creativity thrived. These pieces are neither dull exercises nor the sort of trivial “children’s music” produced for commercial purposes by the music education industry; they were created with the same attention to expressive and formal details that the composer devoted to larger, more complex works. Drawing upon polychords and polytonality, modality, dissonant counterpoint, irregular and unusual meters, and even absence of meter, he captured the whimsy, impishness, tenderness, innocence, and silliness of the young personality, as well as its access to a free, non-linear imagination, with an eloquent precision and delicate beauty that is the province only of an artist whose “inner child” has not been sacrificed to the jadedness of maturity. The fact that many of these pieces provided the thematic material for Persichetti’s sole opera The Sibyl—one of his two most ambitious works—suggests the importance he placed on them.

In 1960, Persichetti’s wife Dorothea, a brilliant pianist and the explicit source of inspiration for his entire output. wrote a doctoral dissertation on Persichetti’s music, discussing all his works composed up to that time. Regarding Persichetti’s “teaching pieces,” Dorothea noted that “the composer vehemently denies that he ever wrote such a thing, maintaining that he writes music, all of which can be taught, but some to students younger than others. The idiom of the large and the small pieces is often the same, and some of the little pieces which seem most simple technically have unexpected subtle and musically sophisticated spots, realized in quarter notes in a five-finger position…. [T]he little works are distillations of a musical expression that has undergone clarification to the point of great simplicity…. He does not write ‘down’ to attain simplicity. Some of his music is large, and some small; some difficult, and some easy…. If [the latter] are successful, it is so because they are music, not because they are pedagogy.

Over the course of his career Persichetti composed a series of what he entitled “serenades.” There are a total of fifteen serenades for a variety of instrumental media. Nos. 2 and 7 are for piano solo. The Serenade No. 2, composed when he was 14, was one of the pieces composed “behind the back” of his primary composition teacher Russell King Miller, and contributed to his eventual expulsion from Miller’s theory classes. Its three movements last barely two minutes, and are entitled “Tune,” “Strum,” and “Pluck.” Despite their brevity, relative ease of execution, and conceptual levity, these terse, mischievous pieces are quite sophisticated, with acerbic secundal dissonances, sparse gestures, rhythmic irregularities, and long stretches of atonality—all general characteristics of his work. Serenade No. 7 was composed in 1952. Its six tiny pieces are more accessible than those in Serenade No. 2, and are much easier to play.

Among the sizable number of Persichetti’s piano pieces suitable for upper-elementary and intermediate-level piano students, perhaps the best known is the Little Piano Book, Op. 60, composed in 1953. This group of fourteen easy pieces of uncommon charm and beauty has become a classic of its kind. The composer described it as “a collection of simple pieces written for, or about, friends and relatives and acquaintances. One is a self-portrait. This is my music reduced to its essence; nevertheless these pieces do contain elements found in my larger, more complex works.” Dorothea felt that “they may be some of the composer’s best music.” Other such works are the slightly more difficult Variations for an Album, and Parades, the easiest to play of all Persichetti’s piano pieces.

Notes by Walter Simmons
Author, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin 
(Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), from which these notes were adapted.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMERICAN ORIGINALS: Music by Giannini, Mennin, Persichetti, Schuman, Gould, Dello Joio, Stravinsky. STATEMENTS: Music by Persichetti, Vaughan Williams, Hartley, McAlister, Forte, Stamp, Barber, Schmitt.

AMERICAN ORIGINALS ● Col. Lowell Graham, cond; USAF Heritage of America Band ● KLAVIER K-11188 (70:48)
GIANNINI Symphony No. 3. MENNIN Canzona. PERSICHETTI Divertimento. SCHUMAN George Washington Bridge. M. Gould Ballad. DELLO JOIO Variants on a Medieval Tune. STRAVINSKY Circus Polka

STATEMENTS ● Col. Lowell Graham, cond; USAF Heritage of America Band ● KLAVIER K-11171 (63:50)
PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Toccata Marziale. Flourish. HARTLEY Hallelujah Fantasy. McALISTER A Summer Flourish. FORTE Dance Suite on Spanish and Latin Rhythms. STAMP With Trump and Wing. BARBER Commando March. SCHMITT Dionysiaques

These recordings, featuring the USAF Heritage of America Band conducted by Col. Lowell Graham, were all recorded between 1990 and 1994. I suspect that they are re-issues of previously released recordings, although I was not previously aware of them, there is no such indication on the packages, and there are certainly no apparent signs of sonic obsolescence. Col. Graham’s bio identifies him as the chairman of the music department at the University of Texas at El Paso, after a long, active, varied, and much-honored career conducting orchestras and choruses, as well as bands.

These two recently-released compact discs offer superb performances of many of the enduring classics from what has been called the “Golden Age of American Band Music,” which generally refers to the 1950s, more or less. This period of tremendous fertility was due to a confluence of factors, especially: 1) the near-simultaneous emergence of conductors—most notably Frederick Fennell at the Eastman School, William (incorrectly called “Frank” in the liner notes) Revelli at the University of Michigan, and Richard Franko Goldman in New York City—who crusaded for the legitimacy of the wind band as a medium capable and worthy of playing serious repertoire written by the nation’s greatest composers; and 2) the willingness of such composers to test that conviction by providing challenging, stimulating, and satisfying  repertoire. The result was the creation of a distinguished body of work that—as one might expect of classics—have continued to hold the interest of audiences, performers, and conductors, while setting high standards for subsequent generations of composers. (I might add that this has been a far healthier and more constructive situation than that faced by the nation’s symphony orchestras.)

Among the most justly celebrated works included on the discs at hand are—most prominently—the Symphony No. 6 (1956) of Vincent Persichetti—perhaps the most distinguished work in the repertoire—not to mention the composer’s delightfully impish, poignant, witty, and exuberant Divertimento of 1950—his own initial contribution to the medium; the Symphony No. 3 (1958) of Vittorio Giannini, which rivals the Persichetti symphony in popularity, though it is a bit more sentimental in its appeal for affection, relative to the more abstract, streamlined neo-classicism of the earlier work; William Schuman’s evocative George Washington Bridge (1950)—as representative of the composer’s personality in its nervous grandeur and brash monumentality as any work he wrote; and the Canzona (1951) of Peter Mennin—a bombshell composed between his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which makes a major musical statement in the space of five minutes. Col. Graham describes the piece as “gritty music, with driving internal rhythms. It is cellular, in that one thing leads logically to another. Mennin’s language is usually dark and has a recognizable ‘sound’ and personality—it pulsates. I treat this music melodically, although … there are rhythmic cells that are trying to punch through its long melodic lines. I believe that maximizing these two contrasting traits accents and emphasizes the drama of the piece.”

There are also a few congenial pieces of moderate interest, such as those by Norman Dello Joio, Morton Gould, and Samuel Barber. Dello Joio’s Variants on a Medieval Tune (1963) turns up frequently on band programs, although I find the triviality of its treatment of a chant melody somewhat annoying. Gould’s Ballad (1946) is one of the earlier entrants to the repertoire. It is overall a rather contemplative work, with fewer Americanisms than are found in most of the composer’s output, though they are not entirely absent by any means. Gould was delightfully disarming in his candor, before he began to believe the claims for him as a serious creative figure made during his final years. In his program notes, he writes that most listeners find Ballad to range “from relatively pleasant to slightly boring.” Though its artistic aspirations are modest, the Commando March of Samuel Barber has become well-established in the repertoire, probably owing to the composer’s prominence in the larger scene.

There are also more recent pieces written specifically for this band and its conductor by Walter Hartley, Jack Stamp, Clark McAlister, and Aldo Forte. Hartley’s Halleluia Fantasy is a delightful little rhapsody that packs eight different early-19th-century hymn tunes into a mere four-minute duration. Stamp’s With Trump and Wing is an exuberant piece in three sections that evokes the styles of the aforementioned “Golden Age” composers. McAlister was a student of Alfred Reed, one of the most successful of the “Golden Age” composers, although one who did not always adhere to the highest artistic standards. McAlister’s A Summer Flourish is a pleasantly rousing contribution that also evokes the spirit of the 1950s. Aldo Forte was born in Cuba in 1953. His Dance Suite has a strong Latin pops flavor, while revealing considerable skill and good taste.

There are a few non-American contributions, such as Vaughan Williams’s Flourish, a little-known but immensely appealing piece of less than two minutes duration. The English master is also represented by his Toccata Marziale, a staple of the British band repertoire. Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques (1913) seems to have become the French work for band, and appears on one recording after another. A 10-minute piece in the “prelude-and-dance” format developed so thoroughly by Paul Creston, it is awfully tame in both its energy and its exoticism. For a change, band conductors in search of a French work might try Gabriel Fauré’s Funeral March. This is a fine piece by a major composer, and has been transcribed for the modern American band most effectively by Myron Moss.

And then there is the one real clinker, which sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb—Stravinsky’s ugly, worthless piece of detritus, his Circus Polka, a brief ballet for elephants commissioned by George Balanchine on behalf of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Evidently the elephants reacted to the music with appropriate disdain.

As noted toward the beginning of this review, these are all basically superb performances, and I stand by that. However, since many of these pieces can be found on multiple recordings, it is only fair to the consumer that I note certain imperfections that may affect acquisition decisions. The performance of the Persichetti Symphony strikes me as a little under-energized, while the third movement is taken at a rushed tempo that seems at odds with the natural respiration of the music. And in the lovely “Soliloquy” of the Divertimento, the trumpet soloist uses a little too much vibrato. In the Giannini Symphony, certain rhythmic asymmetries in the third movement fail to emerge clearly. Aside from these minor matters, the performances are excellent.

Also generally good are the unsigned program notes, although the following sentences appear in the booklet accompanying American Originals: “[William] Schuman contributed substantially to the growth of Juilliard during his more than twenty years of leadership. He persuaded the stewards of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to include Juilliard in the plans for their newly-designed complex.” It should be noted that Schuman was not president of Juilliard for more than twenty years. He was president for 17 years, but Peter Mennin, his successor, was president for 21. Also, while the idea of incorporating Juilliard into Lincoln Center may have been Schuman’s, it was Mennin who actually engineered and supervised the move.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, VOLS. I, II, and III. Music by Persichetti, Adler, Albright, Martinu, Templeton, Sowash, Thomson, Rosner, Borroff, Locklair, Harbach, Near, V. Fine, Thompson, Pinkham, S. Jones. Barbara Harbach, harpsichord

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume IPERSICHETTI: Harpsichord Sonata No. 7. ADLER: Harpsichord Sonata. ALBRIGHT: Four Fancies. MARTINU: Sonate. Deux Pieces. Deux Impromptus. TEMPLETON: Bach Goes to Town. SOWASH: The Unicorn. Theme with Six Variations. THOMSON: Four Portraits. Barbara Harbach, harpsichord. KING­DOM KCLCD-2005; 71:20. Produced by John Proffitt.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume II. ROSNER: Musique de clavecin. BORROFF: Metaphors. LOCKLAIR: The Breakers Pound. HARBACH: Spain­dango. G. NEAR: Triptych. V. FINE: Toccatas and Arlas. THOMPSON: Four Inventions. Barbara Harbach,harpsichord. GAS-PARO GSCD-266;70:40. Produced by John Proffitt.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume IIIPINKHAM: Partita. S. JONES: Two Movements. LOCKLAIR: Fantasy Brings the Day. ROSNER: Sonatine d’amour. ADLER: Bridges to Span Adversity. Barbara Harbach,harpsichord. GAS-PARO GSCD-280;68:38. Produced by Roy Christensen.

If listening to these three CDs, containing three and a half hours of twentieth-century harpsichord music, doesn’t prove the instrument’s viability as a modern musical medium, nothing will. Barbara Harbach, a faculty member at the State University of New York at Buffalo, tours and records extensively as both harpsichordist and organist. Her enthusiastic, wide-ranging involvement in expanding and promoting the modern harpsichord repertoire can be gleaned simply by perusing the above list of works, many of which were composed with her in mind. Except for the few criticisms noted during the course of the following review, Harbach plays with precision and a refreshing verve, while exhibiting a healthy, exuberant musicality. Sixteen composers are represented—all of them American but Martinu. The pieces she has chosen embrace a wide and varied stylistic range, from those that trade, either seriously or parodistically, on the harpsichord’s association with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to more mainstream neoclassical efforts, from some surprisingly effective examples of romantic lyricism, to a few offerings that are wildly sui generis. In an attempt to accommodate the reader, I will comment on the contents disc by disc, in the order that the pieces are listed above.

Volume I originally appeared (minus the Thomson and Sowash pieces) on LP (Gasparo GS-251) a few years ago, and was reviewed in Fanfare 9:5 (p. 305). The most substantial works on this disc are those by Persichetti, Adler, and Albright. During the. last years of his life, Vincent Persichetti concentrated intensively on the harpsichord, which he described as “a whole universe in itself.” The seventh of his nine sonatas for the instrument was composed in 1983. Its three brief movements are terse, concise, and thoroughly abstract in structure, featuring graceful, thin, linear textures idiomatic to the instrument. While the first two movements arc quite austere in tone, the finale explodes with an exuberant rhythmic vitality.

Samuel Adler is a prolific German-born composer now in his sixties who currently heads the composition department at the Eastman School of Music. Adler’s neoclassical sonata of 1982 is more rhythmically and texturally aggressive than Persichetti’s, with the kinds of forceful, dissonant sonorities one does not expect from the harpsichord. These create a jarring, but invigorating, effect. The slow movement, however, provides some tender moments. This is a brilliant, substantial work that becomes more engrossing with each hearing.

A rather bizarre piece that seems to be developing a following among harpsichordists is a wacky stylistic hodgepodge called Four Fancies, composed in 1979 by Michigan-based William Albright. Most striking are the first movement, a maddeningly abrasive takeoff on a Baroque French Overture, and the finale, a “Danza Ostinata” that the program notes link to near-Eastern music, boogie-woogie, Soler, and Terry Riley. The inner movements are more subdued, but mysterious and imaginative. The piece is often irritating, but intriguingly stylish nonetheless.

The three works by Bohuslav Martinu are rather disappointing. Deux Pieces date from 1935, while the sonata and Deux Impromptus appeared during the composer’s last years, 1958 and 1959 respectively. At best they display some modest, neo-Baroque charm, but, for the most part, are flimsy, routine, and uninteresting.

“Bach Goes to Town: Prelude and Fugue in Swing” is a movement from Alec Templeton’s 1938 Topsy-Turvy Suite, originally composed for piano. By now, the notion of jazzing up the Baroque idiom is not new, and this example sounds banal and dated, though it certainly loses nothing on the harpsichord. However, Harbach plays the piece so squarely and stiffly that what little charm it has is stilled.

Rick Sowash is a forty-year-old composer who studied at the University of Indiana. What I know of his music has been sweetly and simply tuneful, with an identifiably American flavor. Both pieces presented here follow that description. The Unicorn, composed in 1976, suggests a senti­mental pastorale—pretty, but extended beyond its durability through mere changes of registration. Theme with Six Variations was written a decade later and is too simplistic to take seriously.

Virgil Thomson’s Four Portraits were originally written for piano. Like most pieces by this vastly over-rated composer, some moments are pretty, others are banal, but all are vacuous.

If a listener wished to sample only one of these CDs, I would recommend Volume II, as the one with the most interesting program. Worthy of special attention is Arnold Rosner’s Musique de Clavecin, one of the most eerily fascinating compositions for harpsichord I have ever heard. As many Fanfare readers already know, Rosner has fashioned quite an original means of expression, using a language rooted in the distant past—in particular, in the idioms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Not that this is so remarkable in itself—after all, the same can be said for Respighi’s suites of Ancient Dances and Airs, Gordon Jacob’s William Byrd Suite, Warlock’s Capriol Suite, and any number of other examples by Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, et al. But what makes Rosner’s music special is that, in most of his works, its stylistic atavism does not exist merely to provide quaint antiquarian charm, but rather, serves as a basic medium to convey a wide range of emotional states—some quite intense and powerful. This is more clearly illustrated by the 1974 Musique de Clavecin than by any other music of Rosner to appear on disc thus far. The work is in five substantial movements: The first is a grim, stately sarabande; the second, a sardonic, grotesque dance; the third is a macabre nocturne, somewhat reminiscent conceptually of Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme  in its reiteration of a simple but haunting chord progression that grows gradually from a soft and mysterious opening to a climax of nightmarish intensity and back; the fourth movement is a lovely Elizabethan dance of benign character; the work concludes with a somber passacaglia. Lasting twenty-two minutes, Musique de Clavecin contains virtually nothing a contemporary au­dience would describe as “dissonant,” but is full in texture and weighty in content—a challenge for the performer that Harbach meets admirably.

Also worthy of attention is a work from 1987 called Metaphors, by Edith Borroff, a New York-based composer in her mid-sixties, currently on the faculty of SUNY/ Binghamton. Described as a set of variations on a tone row, Metaphors is an expertly shaped, richly expressive piece—abstract in conception, but not at all forbidding.

Dan Locklair is a composer from North Carolina, now in his early forties. The Breakers Pound, composed in 1985, was inspired by a poem of Stephen Sandy called Freeway. This is an entertaining, parodistic sort of piece, with wild stylistic incongruities—from Baroque to boogie-­woogie—somewhat along the lines of Albright’s Four Fancies, but lighter in weight and more approachable.

Barbara Harbach’s own Spaindango is a rather ferocious little tour-de-force, with a faintly Spanish flavor. Despite its brevity, it makes a distinctly indelible impression.

Gerald Near (b. 1942) is a noted church musician based in Minnesota. His Triptych is simple and direct, with a melodic warmth reminiscent of Hanson and Creston.

Veteran composer Vivian Fine’s 1986 Toccatas and Arias is described as “a meditation on Baroque forms.” Though imaginatively constructed, it is rather dry in effect.

Randall Thompson’s Four Inventions originated as classroom exercises in counterpoint. Al­though much of Thompson’s music engenders warm affection, these Anna Magdalena-like trifles are too slight to warrant attention—or inclusion in a serious recital program.

Volume III adds a couple of new names to Harbach’s program, while delving further into the works of some composers previously sampled. Massachusetts-based Daniel Pinkham, now in his late sixties, has long been associated with the harpsichord—both as performer and composer. (His 1955 Concerto for Celeste and Harpsichord is a long-time favorite of mine.) The Partita offered here is an ambitious work in six substantial movements, composed in 1964. Perhaps the fact that the music was originally written as part of a television documentary accounts for its apparent lack of stylistic balance. Much of it is difficult to characterize—serious in tone, light in texture, cool, dry, and rather impersonal in effect. Though several of the movements strike me as excessively academic, others are delightful, especially an ebullient Scherzo and Trio, and a strangely Debussy-like (imagine!) Envoi.

Samuel Jones, now in his mid-fifties, is a professor of composition at Rice University in Texas. His Two Movements from 1988 are abstract, serious, solidly crafted, and conservative, as one might expect of an Eastman graduate from the Hanson years. In common with the Adler sonata and the Borroff Metaphors discussed earlier, Jones’s piece does not make a strong personal impression, yet promises further rewards on subsequent hearings.

Dan Locklair reappears on this disc with another oddly entertaining piece, this one called Fantasy Brings the Day (1989). Like much of the music presented here, it exhibits virtually no Baroque reference, yet exploits the harpsichord’s characteristics most effectively.

Arnold Rosner’s 1987 Sonatine d’Amour is rather less interesting than his Musique de Clave­cin. It is in two movements—the first, an incantatory recitative punctuated by broken chords; the second, a gentle, graceful dance. Part of the problem may lie with the performance: The melismatic melodies of the first movement are played rather metronomically, while the second movement is paced a bit slowly. In any case, the result seems monotonous and overextended.

Samuel Adler composed his Bridges. to Span Adversity in 1989, in memory of Jan deGaetani. Its two movements, though skillful, are awfully dry.

On the whole, this beautifully recorded set of CDs represents an impressive accomplishment, ensuring for Barbara Harbach an important place among today’s generation of harpsichordists—and a preeminent one among those who specialize in music of the twentieth century.

PERSICHETTI Piano Sonatas: No. 10; No. 11. Serenade No. 7

PERSICHETTI Piano Sonatas: No. 10; No. 11. Serenade No. 7 ● Ellen Burmeister (pn) ● STARKLAND R-3016 (47:07)

Ellen Burmeister is a pianist who was connected for a number of years with the University of Wisconsin, Madison—first as a faculty member, then as Associate Director of the Music School. During her years as a pianist, one of her specialties was the music of Vincent Persichetti.
Though it is not so indicated on the package itself, this is a reissue of a 1985 recording, released on an Owl LP shortly thereafter (at which time I reviewed it in these pages [10:3]). The provenance of the recording is suggested by the short playing time, although a number of sources offer the disc at a reduced price, perhaps in compensation for this.

Any discussion of this recording now must be viewed within the context of Geoffrey Burleson’s masterly traversal of all twelve Persichetti Piano Sonatas (New World 80677), arguably the most significant recording of American piano music to have appeared during the past decade. My enthusiastic review and that of Peter Burwasser can be found in 31:6, while Carson Cooman and I selected it for our Want Lists in 2008.

Although my review of the original release of Burmeister’s recording was largely positive, aside from a few minor cavils, over the years my impression veered in a negative direction, which I now attribute largely to the compromises of the LP medium. The annoying clicks and pops that typically developed with re-playing were an inevitable byproduct of the medium that listeners were forced to endure. Persichetti’s piano music, with its abrupt outbursts of harsh harmonic sonorities, was especially prone to “shatter” and other forms of distortion endemic to the LP medium. This was all very clear to me as I listened to the results of some extremely fine restoration and re-mastering applied to this re-issue.

Given the time limitations of the LP medium, Burmeister’s program is well chosen to highlight the enormous breadth of Persichetti’s range of expression. The Sonata No. 10 is perhaps the greatest of the twelve sonatas, and utilizes what may be viewed as the composer’s central or “mainstream” language, which attained its fullest fruition during the 1950s, when this work was written. This language, essentially a rich expansion of the neo-classicism rooted in the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bartók, achieved eloquent expression in this work, which also displays Persichetti’s extraordinary fluency in writing for the piano, which was his most personal creative medium. Not an easy work to assimilate, the sonata comprises four connected movements that hover over the line between tonality and atonality, while employing a harmonic language that may strike listeners with more conservative tastes as rather harsh, although the work’s coherence and expressive authenticity emerge clearly with increased familiarity.

The Sonata No. 11, on the other hand—composed a decade later, in 1965—represents Persichetti’s attempt to embrace the serial “style,” which dominated the “New Music” scene at the time, but without his acceptance of the strict dogmas of that approach. That is, while adopting the wide, abrupt intervallic leaps, indistinct rhythmic pulse, and avoidance of obvious tonal landmarks associated with this style, he did not follow the “method” to the point of compromising the work’s essential musicality. In this sense, his pieces along these lines bear some resemblance to the music of a composer like George Perle, although the two arrived at a similar point by moving in virtually opposite directions. However, those more conservative listeners may be alienated beyond redemption by the uncompromising surface effect of No. 11, despite the fact that the work is no less authentic in its expressive purposes than any of his more accessible compositions.

The Serenade No. 7, dating from 1952, represents the opposite extreme within Persichetti’s output: works of utter simplicity, easy to play and easy to appreciate, with clear tonality, the gentlest of dissonant harmony, and a playfulness suggestive of the personality of a child. Those who know the breadth of the composer’s expressive range are aware of the paramount importance of this aspect of his work. Burmeister lends this music the requisite innocence and charm.

Burmeister’s performances reveal a sensitivity and precision that elicited the composer’s explicit praise—a fact that is overplayed somewhat in the attendant publicity material, especially in light of Persichetti’s renowned generosity toward musicians who played his music. Her performances tend to be somewhat softer-edged than Burleson’s, which are a bit tighter and crisper. But the difference is not great enough to be considered significant. For those listeners who are (inexplicably) unwilling to invest in Geoffrey Burleson’s traversal of the complete cycle of piano sonatas, this is a useful sample. For those who already have Burleson’s recording, Burmeister offers a valid supplement, although not one that adds any significant new insights into the music.

Now that his piano sonatas are represented so handsomely on recording, what is needed next is a recording of Persichetti’s remaining works for solo piano, of which there are more than enough to fill another whole CD.

PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6. Parable IX. Masquerade. Divertimento. Psalm. Pageant

PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6. Parable IX. Masquerade. Divertimento. Psalm. Pageant ● Stephen K. Steele, cond; Illinois State University Wind Symphony ● ALBANY TROY1253 (70:09)

Aside from his international reputation as a teacher of composition, Vincent Persichetti is best known today as a composer of music for wind band, although his pieces for this medium comprise a relatively small proportion (about 8%) of his entire output. But the music offered on this new release—less than half his output for band—constitutes the pieces most often performed, and have become true classics of the repertoire. Not only was Persichetti arguably the first composer to write for the medium in a way that acknowledges and capitalizes on its own particular qualities, but the pieces themselves display a virtually limitless range of moods and expressive attitudes, ranging from the consonant, triadic chorales and diatonically modal melodic lines of Psalm to the atonal, dissonant, and often unmetrical Parable IX. Yet throughout there is a sense of playful exuberance and warm sincerity. Most of this music has been recorded many times, and can be found on numerous band anthologies. As far as I know there are two other recordings devoted exclusively to Persichetti’s band music currently available. One is David Amos’s program with the London Symphony Winds (Naxos 8.570123) and the other is Eugene Corporon’s program with the North Texas Wind Symphony and the Cincinnati Wind Symphony (GIA CD-627). Both feature excellent performances, and there are slight differences among the program contents of all three, so the devotee may want to own more than one. (I refer the interested reader to more detailed commentary in Fanfare 29:4, pp. 184-89, or to my recent book on the music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin.)

The earliest of the pieces, Divertimento, represents a real turning point in Persichetti’s output as a whole. Although he began composing at a young age, and prolifically, most of his approximately 40 works up until that point, though crafted with great skill, lack a strong personal profile or sense of individuality. But the Divertimento, composed in 1950, when he was 35, ushered in a new voice—one of ease, of effortless spontaneity, and of utter naturalness—that allowed his own idiosyncratic musical persona to come to the surface, in all its multifaceted richness. Divertimento’s six tiny movements represent the sort of miniature character-pieces at which Persichetti excelled.

Psalm and Pageant followed just a few years later. These are especially accessible pieces whose innocent sincerity and lively exuberance have endeared them to generations of youngsters, who comprise the majority of band musicians.

In 1956 Persichetti expanded his approach into a full four-movement symphonic structure. The result is a concise, tightly constructed neo-classical symphony—a masterly 20th-century adaptation of practices traceable directly from Haydn. It is justly regarded as the greatest American symphony for wind band of its generation, and has maintained this stature for more than half a century.

Masquerade, composed in 1965, represents something of an expansion of Persichetti’s language as applied to music for winds, introducing greater chromaticism and harmonic dissonance. This intriguing yet characteristic work consists of variations on brief didactic examples from the composer’s textbook, Twentieth Century Harmony.

Parable IX is one of the few instances among Persichetti’s 25 pieces in that series that are large both in scale and in forces required. In this work from 1972 the composer incorporated the emphasis on sonority and gesture that his colleagues were exploring during that period. It stands alongside the Symphony No. 6 as his most ambitious works for wind band.

There is much reason to recommend this new recording, which features the Illinois State University Wind Symphony, under the direction of Stephen K. Steele. Most notably, the sound quality is especially rich and transparent, allowing for greater clarity of lines situated at extremes of pitch. The performances are solid, thoughtfully conceived, and brilliantly executed, for the most part. However, I suspect that a few more hours of recording time might have eliminated a number of blemishes that mar this otherwise outstanding recording: some moments of imprecise ensemble and balance in the Divertimento, a glaringly obvious edit in Pageant, a few passages of imprecision in the Symphony, and some questionable intonation in the Parable. This is too bad, because aside from these minor defects the performance of the Parable is quite stupendous, as is that of the Symphony. The fast sections of Masquerade are played a little too fast; otherwise this would stand as the definitive performance of the work. Ditto the Allegro section of Psalm.

If I had to select a single recording to recommend, it would probably be Amos’s Naxos recording, which offers brilliant performances and includes some rarities, but excludes the Symphony. For the Symphony I would recommend the U. S. Marine Band recording (Naxos 8.570243), which is virtually flawless. And the first (1959) recording of this work—featuring Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble—is perhaps the one with the greatest sense of excitement, and may still be available from some sources. But true Persichetti band devotees will probably want these two Naxos releases AND the Eastman recording (reissued on a Mercury CD), as well as the GIA performances AND this new Albany release, as each offers particular virtues absent from the others. 


TOUCH: The Toccata Project

PERSICHETTI Three Toccatinas. MENOTTI Ricercare and Toccata. HOIBY Toccata. DIEMER Serenade/Toccata. HARRIS Toccata. ANTHEIL Toccatas Nos. 1 and 2. ROREM Toccata. I. FINE Little Toccata. SOWERBY Toccata. L. LIEBERMANN Toccata. LEES Toccata. M. L. LEHMAN Toccatina. MUCZYNSKI Toccata. R. LEWENTHAL Toccata alla Scarlatti. RIEGGER Toccata. BASTIEN Toccata. Philip Amalong (pn) •ALBANY TROY1142 (57:00)

An hour of post-1900 toccatas for piano: Actually, this new release is but the first volume of what pianist Philip Amalong describes as “hundreds of exciting touch pieces that deserve to be played and heard.” An intriguing idea? Perhaps. With some of the pieces I am already familiar, and of some I am very fond, and some have never been recorded before; but all are given excellent readings by Mr. Amalong. However, as I listened to the program, I found myself thinking: The whole is less than the sum of its parts. Now why should that be? After all, varied anthologies of tangos and of waltzes come to mind as comparable collections; these have been popular and successful. I think the answer is that the toccata—described by Amalong as “percussive and motoric, splashy and fleeting…. all momentum and spinning motion, like a locomotive, rarely stopping until reaching its destination”—is somewhat more limited as a genre than the waltz—or even than the tango. All the toccatas offered here fit the pianist’s description pretty well, so you have a wide range of composers—from celebrated modernists like Wallingford Riegger and George Antheil to pianist Raymond Lewenthal and piano pedagogue James Bastien—hammering away at their “percussive and motoric” thing. And you know what? They all sound an awful lot alike. With that given, I then listened for distinguishing features: What sets them apart? Which stand out and make the strongest impressions?

So rather than a dull description of each one, I will offer some observations that occurred to me while listening—partly because the program notes were written by Mark Louis Lehman, who also composed one of the pieces. Lehman, composer and novelist, is also a music critic, who covers essentially the same “beat” for the American Record Guide that I do for Fanfare. His writing about music is so lucid and perceptive that there is little I can say about this program that he hasn’t already said—and more acutely than I could. 

Most of these pieces would serve best as recital encores. Most are in the 2-3 minute range, so they wouldn’t really hold their own on a recital program, unless they were part of a group of short pieces—and not all toccatas, please! There are a couple of exceptions to this generalization: Vincent Persichetti’s Three Toccatinas are part of a single opus number that lasts about six minutes. Much of Persichetti’s keyboard music—the fast movements, in any case—is toccata-like, with simple-textured running figures divided between the hands. This little group was written in 1979 for a piano competition, and they display the composer’s utter mastery of writing for the keyboard. Each is a moto perpetuo built largely of diatonic scale passages and triadic arpeggios, which makes them a little easier to play than they sound. They add up to a substantive recital group. Other more meaty selections are Lee Hoiby’s Toccata, Op. 1, dating from 1949, when he was 23. At five minutes, this exciting piece makes a statement of enough weight—with real development, and a progressive design—that it could hold its own on a recital program. Similarly, Emma Lou Diemer’s 8-minute Serenade/Toccata has the expressive variety and developmental scope—not to mention appealing materials—that provide autonomy and substance. For me this was perhaps the biggest discovery on the disc. Probably the best known piece on the program is Gian Carlo Menotti’s Ricercare and Toccata, based on a theme from The Old Maid and the Thief. This too can hold its own on a program (and often does), although the Ricercare is a lot more interesting than the Toccata.

Several of the pieces call Prokofiev to mind: most notably, the Liebermann (true of much of his music), the Bastien (all perfect fifths in the left hand), and the Lehman (which, built around subtle and witty rhythmic tricks, is no less polished or professional than the offerings composed by better-known figures). 

Despite the brevity of the pieces, some—such as those by Roy Harris (which manages to include some pensive and rhapsodic moments) and Ned Rorem (another based on a delightful interplay of irregular rhythmic patterns)—successfully convey their composers’ personal fingerprints.

Irving Fine’s tiny morsel is brilliant as far as it goes. Benjamin Lees’s entry captures his characteristically gruff, demonic drive, but is spoiled by a blatant V-I ending. Raymond Lewenthal’s Toccata alla Scarlatti is exactly what its title suggests: an affectionate 20th-century knock-off of the Baroque master.

As you can see, virtually each piece is quite enjoyable and successful in its own right. The only ones that failed to meet the standard set by the others were those by George Antheil and Leo Sowerby.

In summary, a useful resource for pianists looking for interesting encores; for others, some pleasant listening experiences, but not to be taken all in one dose.


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.