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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

SOWASH: Piano Trios (No. 1, “Four Seasons in Bellville”; No. 2, “Orientals and Galop”; No. 3, “A Christmas Divertimento”; No.4).

SOWASH: Piano Trios (No. 1, “Four Seasons in Bellville”; No. 2, “Orientals and Galop”; No. 3, “A Christmas Divertimento”; No.4). The Mirecourt Trio (Kenneth Goldsmith, violin; Terry King, cello; John Jensen, piano). GASPARO — GSCD 254 [DDD]; 65:34. Produced by Roy Christensen

SOWASH: Daweswood Suite; Anecdotes and Reflections; Street Suite. The Mirecourt Trio; Craig Olzenak, clarinet. GASPARO — GSCD 285 [DDD]; 66:52. Produced by Roy Christensen.

These two new CDs offer a generous serving of the music of Rick Sowash, an American composer born in 1950. In addition to writing music, Sowash has performed as a humorist, worked as an innkeeper, and served for four years as County Commissioner of his native Richland County, Ohio. Indeed, part of his mission as a composer seems to be to memorialize and capture the spirit of the Ohio towns in which he has lived. For some years his music has been championed by the Mirecourt Trio, a fine piano trio, esteemed for their expertise and their openness to new repertoire, and active in the Midwest and on recordings. Sowash has written many works for them during the past decade.

What does his music sound like? It is nice stuff — cheerful, unpretentious, exuberant, and heartfelt, with a disarming freshness and innocence. The idiom is tonal and diatonic — mostly melody-with-harmony homophony — with some unexpected root movements. The music is very simply constructed, and straightforward and direct enough that one needn’t be versed in the idioms of classical music to appreciate it. What raises it above the routine and really holds one’s attention is the soaring, folk-like lyricism that generously pervades Sowash’s compositions. There are also references to a variety of vernacular musical idioms: Gershwin-like pop, marching-band tunes, old American dance forms, even Klezmer music. All is blended together with a light touch.

The Piano Trio No. 1 (1977) is a 25-minute work that clearly sets forth Sowash’s musical agenda. It is subtitled, “Four Seasons in Bellville” and is dedicated to the town in which the composer lived for many years. Piano Trio No. 2 (1980) is a shorter piece but contains some dreadfully banal material. Only Sowash’s wonderful lyricism manages to save it. The concluding section shows a little more technical sophistication as well. Piano Trio No. 3 (1983) is a longer work and shows still more sophistication and polish, while No. 4 (1983, revised ’89) is relatively abstract and serious in tone, with a vigor and thrust absent from the other pieces.

On the second CD the Mirecourt Trio is joined by clarinetist Craig Olzenak, who has been active on the West Coast and now teaches at Grinnell College in Iowa. The most impressive piece on this disc is the Daweswood Suite, a three-movement work lasting 16 minutes, composed in 1980 with reference to a botanical analogy. It is cut from the same cloth as the other pieces, but is especially attractive. Anecdotes and Reflections is long — nearly 40 minutes — and was written in memory of a local civic leader. Illustrating Sowash’s brand of populist eclecticism, it is amiable and inviting. Street Suite (1976) is scored for violin and clarinet only. Each of its ten short movements was suggested by one of the streets in the town in which Sowash was born and raised. It is light and diverting in tone, but much of it is too silly-simple for my taste.

I first heard Sowash’s music some years back, when the Piano Trio No. 1 was released on the other side of an LP that also contained Paul Creston’s Piano Trio (TR Records TRC-107). Since then, every time I’ve returned to it, I’ve been surprised anew by how enjoyable Sowash’s Trio is, although I would not recommend it for rigorous, repeated listening   When one considers how selective most purchasers of recordings must be today, it is difficult to recommend music of such modest importance. I mean, if you have yet to acquire, say, the Gurrelieder, I’m not telling you to run out and buy Sowash. On the other hand, I’m glad have these discs for my own collection.