MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas

MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas: Nos. 1-3 ● Zachary Lopes (pn) ● ALBANY TROY1771 (42:44)

This is a most welcome recording of Robert Muczynski’s three compelling piano sonatas—the first to appear since Laurel released its two-CD set of the composer’s own performances of his complete solo piano music. I should mention that though the latter recordings were originally issued on LP during the early 1980s, they were re-issued on CD (along with several chamber works) in 2000. Those Laurel CDs are still very much available, and admirers of Muczynski’s music will definitely want them too. Since Laurel CDs are not marketed through many of the usual channels, the most reliable way to access them is directly through the label’s website (

My colleague Myron Silberstein has done a typically astute job of describing Muczynski’s music, so I will discuss it in more general terms. I have often characterized Muczynski’s style, which remained largely consistent throughout his compositional career, as a kind of romantic neo-classicism. That is, it is modest, understated, devoid of extramusical encumbrance, its substance abstract and developed with great concision. Most of his attention was focused on music for solo piano and for small chamber combinations. There are remarkably few orchestral, choral, or vocal works in his catalog. On the other hand, his music is very appealing, with lively, vigorous rhythmic drive, propelled by syncopation and irregular meters, with an underlying lyricism and a subtle attention to mood. Muczynski’s craftsmanship is meticulous, and his taste is always impeccable. To describe his piano music as comparable in many ways to the piano music of Samuel Barber will give readers a sense of what to expect.

Muczynski was a professional-caliber pianist and his three sonatas (from 1957, 1966, and 1974 respectively) are imposing, highly demanding works that reveal a masterly command of the full range of virtuoso piano technique. The Sonata No. 1 comprises two movements, the first darkly dramatic, followed by driving, rhythmically propulsive material, and the second light-hearted and more extroverted. The Sonata No. 2 is a fine work, but—it must be admitted—is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Barber Sonata in many ways. I will argue that this doesn’t detract from its own individual merit, but knowledgeable listeners are bound to notice, so there’s no point in avoiding it. The Sonata No. 2, the most ambitious of the three, stands alongside the sonatas of Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, and Peter Mennin—all composed during the 1960s—among America’s most distinguished works in that medium. The Sonata No. 3 is more lyrical than its predecessors, but all three works are clearly the fruits of a unified, integrated sensibility.

Zachary Lopes is an American-trained pianist, currently based in Kentucky. He has toured widely, featuring the works of Muczynski on many of his programs. He has this music well in hand and conveys its virtues with impressive conviction. Compared with Muczynski’s own recordings, Lopes’s renditions show somewhat greater confidence and polish, while Albany’s rich, spacious sonic ambience exceeds what was possible on an analog recording made during the early 1980s. That said, it would be unfair to assert that this new release supplants Muczynski’s own performances, in view of the composer’s mastery of his own music and the additional repertoire offered on the Laurel discs.

It is worth noting that many commentators have regarded the period 1955 through 1980 as the artistically barren nadir of American musical composition, a time when serialism and other experimental approaches attracted the majority of attention to new music, much of which has proven to be stillborn. But a remarkable quantity of music of the highest quality appeared during that period, by composers who refused to relinquish their belief in music as a means of communication from one soul to others who resonate with its spirit. Much of this music is only now gradually being discovered and recognized. There were more such composers than is generally realized, but four in particular—Dominick Argento, Lee Hoiby, Nicolas Flagello, and Robert Muczynski—faced the difficult challenge of attempting to launch careers as composers during the period when such humanistic values faced the most flagrant disregard. These four virtual contemporaries fought in their own individual ways against an obscurity that continues to veil their contributions to a large extent. They produced much of their most distinguished music during that quarter-century identified above. Interestingly, Argento—a Pulitzer Prize-winner—is probably the one who has enjoyed the highest acclaim and visibility. On the other hand, it is probably Muczynski, pursuing his career off the grid in Arizona, who has drawn the least attention among musicologists and critics of the compositional scene. Yet it is also Muczynski whose music has probably been performed more widely and more frequently than that of the other three. His low profile can be attributed partly to the complete absence of “blockbusters” within his output. Pieces for flute and piano or saxophone and piano don’t often make the headlines, but ask a flutist or saxophonist about Muczynski and you are likely to elicit an enthusiastic reaction. (Especially perplexing is the fact that commentators and performers continue to decry the paucity of works for piano trio, while Muczynski’s three brilliant works for this medium remain largely in the dark. [I must draw the attention of curious listeners to Centaur CRC-2634, which features stupendous performances of his piano trios, along with his string trio.])

Today stylistic strictures have largely disappeared, and composers are free to pursue a wide variety of approaches. Listeners will derive much pleasure from pursuing the works of these composers who never abandoned their commitments to traditional musical values. This fine recording of Muczynski’s piano sonatas provides such an opportunity.

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8.

PISTON Symphonies: No. 5; No. 7; No. 8. • Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester, conductor; Louisville Orchestra. • ALBANY AR011 [AAD]; 65:50. Produced by Howard Scott and Andrew Kazdin.

For those who missed them during their days as Louisville LPs, this CD provides the opportunity to become acquainted with three of the later symphonies of Walter Piston. Piston, who belonged to the generation that also included Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland, was the foremost symphonist of the group—at least according to the highest standards of the genre as articulated convincingly by such specialists as the brilliant musicologist-composer Robert Simpson and his followers. Indeed, in “The Symphony in America,” included in The Symphony from Elgar to the Present Day (Penguin Books, 1967), a most valuable compendium of essays edited by Simpson, Peter Jona Korn writes, “Piston is without question America’s most mature composer. … He is a composer of moderation, in the most positive sense of the word— moderation that is the result of discipline and control, not of limitation. . . . There is . . . nothing extraordinary about him—except, perhaps, the strong possibility that his symphonies may well turn out to be the most durable written in America today.”

While I am not ready to embrace this assertion to the letter, this CD has given me the opportunity to refresh my thinking about a composer whose works have often left me rather lukewarm. Piston’s earlier symphonies, such as Nos. 2 and 3, which launched the composer’s stylistic profile to the listening public, are characterized by an exuberant optimism propelled by vigorous syncopated rhythms, set off by slow movements displaying a tender lyrical warmth. A hearty extroversion pervades, epitomizing both the strengths and weaknesses of the American symphonic “sound“ of the 1940s: solid, well crafted, engaging, but essentially glib, facile music of limited psychological or spiritual depth. 

However, with the Symphonies Nos. 5 (1954) and 6 (1955), Piston began to probe more deeply. The ingratiating lyrical flow and congenial bounce at times gave way to more serious moments of introspection. Of the two symphonies, I prefer No. 6, a work commissioned, premiered, and recorded (brilliantly) by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. The Fifth Symphony, a fine work nevertheless, seems somewhat less fully consummated. Perhaps this impression is weighted by the fact that the Louisville Orchestra during the mid-1960s (their weakest period, when this recording was originally made) was a far cry from the BSO. Yet their performance, while lacking panache and flair, does represent the work adequately. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 7 of 1960 represents a significant step forward from the two-dimensional provinciality of the earlier works to a universal utterance of the highest stature. Here is displayed not only the consummate mastery of compositional technique for which Piston was renowned, but revealed also are noble vistas of sober grandeur, articulated through the graceful and spontaneous yet logically controlled unfolding of abstract musical ideas. This is the work of a symphonist of the highest order, the kind of music that justifies the assertions of Peter Jona Korn quoted earlier. However, lacking overt drama or sentimentality, a work like this can easily appear impersonal and emotionally detached to the general listener. It is inevitable, perhaps, that such music must remain limited to a relatively small audience, although there is nothing in it that is the least experimental, “avant-garde,“ or antagonistic to the listener. In fact, the third movement, though treated with considerable sophistication, recalls the characteristically American exuberance of the finales of the composer’s earlier symphonies. Those patient enough to become familiar with this work are likely to agree that it is one of the great American symphonies of the mid-twentieth century. 

The Symphony No. 8 was composed five years after its predecessor and shares with it many stylistic features. As strong as it is, it does not, I find, match the earlier work’s elevation of content or concentration of design, falling at times into a drab monotony. There is, however, much to admire in it for those who are willing to devote the necessary concentration. 

By the mid-1970s, when this recording was originally made, the Louisville Orchestra had become a more polished group. Hence, the performances of Piston’s last two symphonies, under the direction of Jorge Mester, show a greater confidence and expressive flexibility than the Whitney-led reading. 
Albany Records, under the leadership of the delightfully feisty and indefatigably ambitious Peter Kermani, is to be recommended and encouraged for reviving some of the landmark recordings from the Louisville series, which was responsible for the first and only recordings of many of the finest American orchestral works. Future reissues are eagerly awaited. 

GRUENBERG Symphony No. 2. The Enchanted Isle. Serenade to a Beauteous Lady: March

GRUENBERG Symphony No. 2. The Enchanted Isle. Serenade to a Beauteous Lady: March · Paul Freeman, cond; Czech National SO · ALBANY TROY-467 (51:17) 

Here is a recent release that, while not exactly heralding the re-discovery of a great but neglected genius, is a worthwhile curiosity for those interested in knowing just who were the American composers that the 20th-century left behind, hovering at the periphery of the main arena. For such listeners, this CD, which explores the legacy of the once-familiar Louis Gruenberg, is too intriguing to be ignored. Gruenberg’s residual reputation seems largely to be based on his having composed an operatic adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, which was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera in 1933 (the year before they introduced Hanson’s Merry Mount, whose fate has been only a bit more salutary), and having composed a violin concerto in 1944, commissioned, performed, and recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Others might also know that he was born in Russia in 1884, came to America at age 2, exhibited prodigious musical talent as a child, studied piano and composition in Germany and Austria while in his 20s, then came back to the United States, spending the latter portion of his career in the vicinity of Los Angeles, where he composed several Academy Award-winning filmscores, and died in 1964. He was known at the height of his career as one of the first “serious” American composers to incorporate elements of jazz and other types of Black music into his works.

The music on this CD, however, shows no influence of Black music that I could detect, and only minimal hints of its having been composed by an American. What we have, introduced via extremely perceptive and informative program notes by Fanfare’s Bernard Jacobson (but who, I think, over-estimates the importance of determining who influences whom), are The Enchanted Isle, a 17-minute symphonic poem completed in 1927, a short excerpt from a rather lightweight Serenade to a Beauteous Lady, dating from 1934, and an ambitious 30-minute symphony originally composed in 1941, revised in 1959 and 1963, but never performed within the composer’s lifetime. Apparently, during his optimistic younger years, Gruenberg described his compositional identity as “a bridge between the old and the new,” but by his later years he lamented, “The world of yesterday seems to have forgotten me, and the world of today does not know me.” (Ah, what a sad business, this composing.)

What is this music like? The Enchanted Isle is a retrospective reworking of older material, and reveals a rather vehement, extroverted musical personality, thoroughly European in orientation and quite competent in craftsmanship, who embraced the gestures, textures, and harmonic language of Impressionism—but not its usually passive temperament. I was reminded initially of such contemporaneous figures as Szymanowski, but also of more robust characters like Bax, and Novák (when I say “reminded” or “sounds like,” I am never concerned with “influence”—which is a largely meaningless, pointless concept usually used irresponsibly as a critical weapon—but rather with location on a hypothetical multi-dimensional grid of musical style, solely for the purpose of communicating an impression). The music is orchestrated with a lushness that occasionally borders on garish, and at others on bombast. There are also occasional moments that suggest—perhaps irrelevantly—the vernacular music of the time. I found it more of a curiosity than a work to cherish.

The “March” from the Serenade to a Beauteous Lady is rather routine and unremarkable, suggesting the genre of English light music, but with a tendency toward a noisiness that seems characteristic of the composer.

Symphony No. 2 is, of course, a weightier effort, but not at all inconsistent with the works just described. Again, suggestions of Americana are largely non-existent, again one notes a raucous, abrasive, or “noisy” quality, as if just too much has been thrown into the pot at one time. Compared to the music of, say, Ernest Bloch, for example—another contemporaneous figure, whose life paralleled Gruenberg’s in a number of ways—this music is much more outgoing and less subjectively emotional. In fact, it is rather diffuse and unfocused emotionally. However, what is most interesting—indeed, the most interesting music on the disc, without which I probably would not have bothered even to write this review—is the symphony’s central slow movement. When I read Jacobson’s description of it as “prophetic of minimalism,” and with a kinship to Messiaen, I must admit that I reacted with skepticism. But he was really pretty close to the mark. Seemingly out of nowhere come these strange ostinati, heralding an exotic, quasi-Southeast Asian intermezzo, perhaps most reminiscent of Henry Cowell’s early “world music” explorations. A strange central section does indeed suggest the music of the French mystic. Quite unexpected and refreshing. For the record, the first performance of the Symphony No. 2 took place in Bamberg, Germany, in 1965, under the direction of composer-conductor Jan Koetsier.

So, as I wrote earlier, not masterpieces but curiosities. The performances are adequate, if a little rough and ragged.

MENNIN: Symphony No. 5; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. SCHUMAN: New England Triptych. IVES: Symphony No. 3; Three Places in New England. PISTON: Sympnony No. 1. KURKA: The Good Soldier Schweik — Suite.

MENNIN: Symphony No. 5. SCHUMAN: New England Triptych. IVES: Symphony No. 3; Three Places in New England. Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. MERCURY 432 755-2 [ADD]; 77:09. Produced by Wilma Cozart Fine.

MENNIN: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. PISTON: Sympnony No. 1. KURKA: The Good Soldier Schweik — Suite. Janos Starker, cello; Jorqe Mester and Robert Whitney conducting the Louisville Orchestra. ALBANY TROY044 [AAD]; 72:29. Produced by Andrew Kazdin and Howard Scott

These CD reissues return to the catalog two of Peter Mennin’s major works from the 1950s, his most fertile decade. Mennin’s music emphasizes counterpoint above all other elements with much use of imitation, canon, ground bass, stretto, cantus firmus and the like. As admirers of the composer’s music are well aware, over the course of his creative career, Mennin’s style underwent a continuous chronological development along a powerful–if rather narrow–continuum. His early music, dating from the 1940s, was characterized by a sense of vigorous kinetic energy and confident determination, with a propensity for the dark and rarely used Locrian mode and for syncopated, strongly accented rhythms. Over the years, the linear aspect of his music became increasingly chromatic, the harmony increasingly dissonant, and the rhythm increasingly irregular, resulting in an overall concentration and intensification of expressive effect. This course of development was so even and continuous that it is fairly easy to date one of Mennin’s compositions by listening to it for just a few minutes. Although he composed only some thirty works during his busy and relatively short life (he died in 1983 at age 60, after having served as president of both the Peabody Conservatory and the Juilliard School), virtually all his music reflects the highest artistic intentions; there are no peripheral, frivolous, or non-representative efforts. Virtually every work conveys a consistently eloquent, coherent, and characteristic metaphysical vision suggesting the sober contemplation of ferocious conflict among wild and massive forces — all portrayed through sound, uncompromising musical logic.

Peter Mennin completed nine symphonies and, knowing all but the first (suppressed by the composer) quite well, I would place him alongside Walter Piston as America’s greatest symphonist. The Symphony No. 5 dates from 1950, when the composer was 27(!) and falls at about the 40th percentile on his developmental continuum. That is, the polyphonic lines are relatively diatonic, the Locrian rnode is, quite, evident , the sense of determination — clear, as always, from the first note — has become grim and defiant but does not yet reflect the manic rage and cataclysmic violence that begin to appear only a year or two later. Like its two symphonic predecessors, the Fifth comprises three movements, the continuous energetic motion of the outer ones relieved by a slow movement of lofty, Bach-like reflectiveness. Howard Hanson leads an incisive, sharply chiseled reading of the work, captured with transparency and brilliance on this recording, originally made in 1962.

Mennin’s Cello Concerto was composed in 1956 and represents considerable development along his stylistic continuum — to about the 60th percentile — as described above.  Polyphonic lines are more chromatic, harmony is more dissonant with an overall increase in severity of tone, kinetic energy, and expressive intensity. The outer movements fly by with a manic frenzy that Janos Starker, brilliant virtuoso that he is, can barely sustain. In truth, the cello, with its low range and limited projection, is no match for an orchestra whipped up to such a fever pitch. Hence the most powerful moments of the outer movements are the tuttis, during which the orchestra is unleashed with full force. However, the deeply moving slow movement provides wonderful opportunities for the cello to sing in beautifully cantabile manner. The performance, dating from 1969, is truly heroic.

The presence of these two Mennin works makes both these reissues of great value to those listeners interested in understanding and appreciating one of the most important figures of mid-20th century American music. The remaining works on both discs are mixed in appeal and interest. On the Mercury release, the two Ives performances were originally recorded in 1957. I must confess to belonging among those listeners who view Ives as a unique visionary of limited musical talent and ability. Three Places in New England is one of his more successful works, effectively projecting his original brand of turn-of-the-century Yankee impressionism, achieved through collage-like processes. The Symphony No. 3, however, is rhythmically uninteresting and unfocused thematically and tonally, despite its pretty surface. The extreme clarity of the recording is revealing of detail during the denser moments of both works, but also exposes rawness and ungainliness of the performances. Both readings have since been far surpassed by later recordings.

After the clumsiness of Ives, the sheer competence of the late William Schuman’s brilliant and popular New England Triptych is refreshing and exhilarating. The strong influence of Ives on Schuman’s stylistic development may be heard in the latter’s useof free (non-tonal) triadic harmony, as well as in his frequent use of multiple textural planes, although Schuman was quite critical of Ives’ actual works. New England Triptych receives a stunning performance in this 1963 recording.

The Louisville release is a mixed bag as well.   Although Walter Piston, like Mennin, was a master symphonist, his efforts in the genre began at a much later age. The first of his eight symphonies did not appear until 1937, when he was 43 (by which age Mennin had already completed seven of his nine).   Piston’s First Symphony is a serious, ambitious, and competent work. However, its severity and uncompromising abstraction seem rather forced, with little sense of ease or spontaneity.   A smoother, more polished performance might help, but only somewhat, I suspect. A world of fluency and facility separates this symphony from its successor, composed six years later.

Robert Kurka — along with the late Andrzej Panufnik — was a composer whose music was championed vigorously by conductor Robert Whitney through his recordings with the Louisville Orchestra, before either composer had acquired any sort of reputation. Kurka was a gifted American who died in 1957 at the age of 36. Unlike Panufnik, Kurka has never achieved much recognition and much of his reputation rests on the anti-war opera The Good Soldier Schweik and the orchestral suite from which it was developed. The suite was composed in 1952 and is scored for winds and percussion only, with a satirical quality strongly reminiscent of the music of Kurt Weill, including much ironic use of jazz-like and circus music-like elements. Although I am fairly familiar with Kurka’s music — more than the three pieces recorded by Whitney — and am quite fond of much of it, I find the Schweik Suite, with its deliberate banality and overused mannerisms, to be rather irritating. The performance, moreover is awfully scrappy. Listeners interested in pursuing Kurka’s music are urged to locate the exuberant and truly distinctive Symphony No. 2, composed one year after the Schweik Suite and once available on Louisville LOU-616.

LEES: Piano Concerto No. 2. SHAWN: Piano Concerto. CRESTON: Dance Overture. A. BISHOP Crooning

LEES Piano Concerto No. 2. SHAWN Piano Concerto. CRESTON Dance Overture. A. BISHOP Crooning · David Alan Miller, cond; Albany SO; Ian Hobson, Ursula Oppens (pns) · ALBANY TROY441 (73:55)

This recent release offers a rewarding sample of diverse American works–light and diverting as well as serious and ambitious–whose dates of composition span nearly half a century. A four-movement piano concerto represents my first exposure to the music of Allen Shawn, a composer in his early 50s who studied with Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim at Harvard, and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Evidently he has concentrated on solo piano and chamber works, although he has also written two operas to librettos by his brother, the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. The Piano Concerto, composed during the years 1997-99, is a work of serious weight and import, largely atonal in harmonic structure though quite traditional in gesture, formal articulation, and overall rhetoric. It opens promisingly with intimations of ominous portent, as the piano offers a soliloquy at times stormy, at others reflective, against a somber backdrop. This is followed by a propulsive scherzo that makes an exciting impact. The dreamy slow movement immediately calls to mind the corresponding portion of Ravel’s G-Major concerto. But despite the romantic ebb and flow of its cantabile melody, the melodic and harmonic material is insufficiently arresting to sustain one’s interest. The finale, intended as the work’s culmination, opens with vigor and determination. But its multisectional structure and the overall grayness of harmonic character cause it to lose its sense of direction and ultimately to pall and founder. I suspect that some of its lack of focus is attributable to weaknesses in the orchestration, which fails to highlight and clarify the focal elements of the texture. A certain tentativeness in the orchestral playing further contributes to the problem, despite what seems to be a solid solo performance by Ursula Oppens. Displaying an authentic musical impetus, the concerto conveys a sense of unfulfilled potential, which might conceivably be redeemed by judicious revision.

A natural comparison is afforded by the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Benjamin Lees. Composed some thirty years earlier, it is a work of similar scope and ambition. More significantly, though Lees’s language is somewhat more strongly rooted in tonality, the tone and character of the two works share a great deal in common. Listening to them in succession highlights rather pointedly the shortcomings of the later work, as Lees’s concerto displays the meticulous craftsmanship–unwavering focus, clarity of texture, and streamlined sense of purpose–missing from Shawn’s effort. Though the work inhabits the same driving, aggressive post-Bartókian/post-Prokofievian stylistic realm as most of Lees’s music from the 1960s, it is powerful and convincing in its own right, despite a certain narrowness of expressive range. Those who enjoy Lees’s Fourth Piano Sonata will not be disappointed with this concerto. Ian Hobson, whose brilliant pianism and remarkable affinity for Lees’s music can be heard on a CD (Albany TROY-227; see Fanfare 21:3) devoted to his solo works, here offers a stupendous performance of the Concerto No. 2.  Furthermore, for whatever reason, the Albany Symphony acquits itself with far more confidence in this work than in the Shawn.

The two short, diverting pieces on the program also comprise an older and a newer work. Paul Creston’s Dance Overture was written in 1954, when the composer was at the height of his popularity, and it became one of his most frequently performed pieces. It displays the infectious rhythmic vitality and festive exuberance that came to typify much of his output. Although some collectors may favor Guido Cantelli’s stunning 1956 performance with the New York Philharmonic, which has been available on ASdisc AS-515, David Alan Miller leads the Albany group in a brisk, vigorous, clean-textured performance that successfully offsets the work’s slightly excessive density of sonority.

Surely the strangest work on the disc is Crooning, composed in 1998 by Andrew Bishop, a versatile figure who studied with William Albright and William Bolcom at the University of Michigan, and has been active in the jazz and pop music fields, as well as the world of concert music. Heard apart from any background information, the piece impresses as an imaginative, abstract 9-minute orchestral rhapsody in a vaguely contemporary tonal vein, in which wisps of melodic material slightly tinged with a vernacular flavor are refracted through distorting lenses. The piece follows an unpredictable course marked by metrical irregularity and rather astringent harmony, until it arrives at an unexpectedly whimsical conclusion. However, Bishop’s program notes describe the piece as a “love song without words” inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinata, and others from “the golden age of American popular songs,” intended “for shower soloists, the radio serenaders, and the crooner in each of us.” This description created expectations–in this listener, at any rate–that confused and interfered with the actual listening experience, which is pleasing enough on its own.

BARBER: Prayers of Kierkegaard. Die Natali. CRESTON: Corinthians: XIII. TOCH: Symphony No. 5, (“Jephta”).

BARBER: Prayers of Kierkegaard. Die Natali. CRESTON: Corinthians: XIII. TOCH:Symphony No. 5, (“Jephta”). Jorge Mester. and Robert Whitney conducting the Louisville Orchestra; with Gloria Capone, soprano; the Chorus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. ALBANY TROY021-2 [AAD]; 69:47.

This latest CD reissue of items from the Louisville backlist is of great merit: Not only does it return to the catalog first and only recordings of four works, but two of them are among the finest creations of their respective composers.

Prayers of Kierkegaard is Samuel Barber’s 1954 setting of excerpts from the intense writings of the Danish religious philosopher. This is a work of unsurpassed beauty in the composer’s canon, with passages of warm lyricism, hushed, awe-filled reverence, and some moments of drama and excitement. There is a lovely soprano solo, the choral writing is gorgeous, and the sequence of sections is masterfully shaped for maximum effect. No one who enjoys the music of Barber should remain unaware of this work — one of the three or four most consistently inspired and superbly realized compositions from the pen of someone with many artistic successes to his credit. Filmmusic buffs may notice remarkable similarities betweenPrayers of Kierkegaard and portions of Miklos Rozsa’s score for Quo Vadis, written three or four years earlier, but this takes nothing from the Barber, which is, obviously, a much more subtle, finely wrought composition.

Die Natali, a set of “Chorale Preludes for Christmas,” was written in 1960. Not only is it a work of considerable compositional virtuosity, combining eight familiar Christmas carols with great ingenuity, but it is quite an orchestral tour de force as well, featuring some challenging instrumental writing. Yet, except for one passage near the end based on original thematic material, the work is surprisingly dry and impersonal, especially in view of the composer’s norm with regard to emotional openness. Nevertheless, Die Natali is an entertaining showpiece and if it is a little cool in tone, at least it avoids the mawkish sentimentality that usually emerges in this sort of effort.

Paul Creston, one of America’s most prominent composers forty years ago, lived to see most of his music plummet into obscurity with the advent of the serialist hegemony during the late 1950s. Although Creston’s major symphonic scores, championed by the likes of Toscanini, Monteux, Rodzinski, ct al., define one of the most individualistic and personally distinctive styles of his generation, he was known during his final decades (he died in 1985) primarily for pieces for unusual instruments, such as marimba, saxophone, and trombone, as well as for a few pops-concert curtain-raisers. True, the composer himself was partly responsible for such misplaced emphasis, reinforcing this type-casting through the commissions he accepted, while directing much of his energy toward the dissemination of some rather dogmatic ideas regarding rhythmic notation. However, Creston continued to produce first-rate music into the 1960s, and the orchestral poem Corinthians: XIII is one. of the finest examples.

Written in 1962, Corinthians: XIII is an expression of the composer’s emotional reaction to the famous chapter from the New Testament. The work is sectional in form, following one of Creston’s favorite structural devices: A literary, artistic, or philosophical concept is divided into several component sub-concepts; each is then given musical expression, unified by a single theme that is transformed into various guises that reflect the different aspects of the extra-musical concept. In the case of Corinthians: XIII, the concept is love, and the work’s three sections deal with love between mother and child, between man and woman, and between man and mankind. As is true of Creston’s best works, Corinthians: XIII displays a remarkable gift for realizing these extra-musical concepts with music that sounds thoroughly natural and spontaneous, yet is brilliantly logical and coherent in its development of the unifying thematic idea.

Though its style is rooted in the richly expanded triadic harmony and sumptuous textures of Debussy and Ravel, with nothing to offend the most conservative listener, the work is unmistakably Creston from the first two chords. The music is deeply felt and sincere: The first section touchingly evokes a tender maternal ardor; the second section becomes more lively, with some characteristic rhythmic felicities, building up to an appropriately heated climax, which leads directly into the final section, a solemn, reverent hymn in which the work’s unifying theme is transformed into the Gregorian melody “Salve Regina,” cloaked in diaphanous, richly harmonized orchestral dress.

Of evident craftsmanship and musicality but of less overt appeal is Ernst Toch’s Symphony No. 5, a “rhapsodic poem” inspired by the Biblical story of Jephta and composed in 1963 — one of the composer’s last major works. Toch was born in Vienna in 1887 but lived in California from 1936 until his death in 1964, and his large and varied output reflects a broad cultural base. “Jephta” reveals a strongly Viennese flavor in its fluent, Berg-like expressionism, flexible enough to include moments of simple diatonicism. But, though colorfully orchestrated and sensitively shaped, with a predominantly romantic/dramatic character, the work exhibits a degree of harmonic astringency and structural complexity that makes it somewhat less accessible than the other works on this altogether worthwhile disc.

All these performances are thoroughly adequate to convey the quality of the music, while leaving plenty of room for improvement with regard to both execution and interpretation. The sound quality of the CD transfers is vastly superior to the original LP releases.   

BARBER: Essay No. 1. Capricorn Concerto. COPLAND: Saga of the Prairies. HARRIS: Symphony No. 6, “Gettysburg”

BARBER: Essay No. 1. Capricorn Concerto. COPLAND: Saga of the Prairies. HARRIS:Symphony No. 6, “Gettysburg”. Louise DiTullio, flute; Allan Vogel, oboe; Anthony Plog, trumpet; Keith Clark conducting the Pacific Symphony Orchestra. ALBANY TROY-064 [DDD]; 68:24. Produced by Keith Clark, Tom Null, and Chris Kuchler.

This new CD features American music composed during the period 1937-44, in performances originally issued on an Andante LP about ten years ago.

As the American orchestral repertoire of the first half of this century undergoes a welcome reappraisal, some composers must inevitably be found wanting. Roy Harris is clearly one of these, notwithstanding the extravagant — virtually delusional — assertions of program-note writer and advocate Dan Stehman.  Harris’ Sixth Symphony, described by Stehman as “a summary of what Roy Harris was as a man and a composer,” was inspired by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In four movements, it attempts to evoke with fervent nobility a spirit of heroic affirmation — and, in truth, there are some poignant and effectively atmospheric passages toward the beginnings of the first and third movements, in particular. However, as is the case with most of Harris’ music, its expressive aspirations are thwarted by a plodding lack of rhythmic invention, and by harmonic motion so ineptly regulated as to seem without purpose or direction. Increased familiarity makes ever more clear the conclusion that Harris was a thoroughly mediocre talent whose work may safely be set aside in favor of music by other far more compelling figures.

Copland’s Saga of the Prairies has been identified variously as Music for Radio and Prairie Journal   (its   final   authorized title I believe; so why doesn’t this production use it?). The piece is a pleasant, highly episodic example of the composer’s popular “Western” mode. It is nice to have this little-known work available in a good, modern recording.

Barber’s Capricorn Concerto is probably his least characteristic work, virtually a wholesale adaptation of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella style, minus the Pergolesi melodies. Here is a fine performance of this inoffensive piece. The familiar and always lovely Essay No. 1, however, can be found in far more polished readings.

FLAGELLO: Passion of Martin Luther King. Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. M. GOULD: Harvest. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World.

FLAGELLO: Passion of Martin Luther King. SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. James DePreist conducting the Oregon Symphony Orchestra; with the Portland Symphonic Choir,  Raymond Bazemore, bass and narrator. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7293-2H1 [DDD]; 58:54. Produced by Michael Fine.

FLAGELLO: Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. M. GOULD: Harvest. David Amos conducting the New Russia Orchestra. ALBANY TROY-143 [DDD]; 65:50. Produced by Vadim Ivanov.

Here are two exciting new releases that expand the discography of Nicolas Flagello (see overview of Flagello’s life and works at the front of this issue), while drawing attention to some other wonderful music as well. Released to coincide with the birthday of Martin Luther King in January, the Koch release highlights two extraordinary musical tributes to the black leader. As Coretta Scott King suggests in the program booklet, the Flagello and Schwantner represent very different approaches to their subject. Schwantner emphasizes King as the inspiring leader who encouraged the black people of this nation to persevere in their struggle to achieve racial justice. Flagello focuses on King as the embodiment of Jesus Christ in our time, martyring himself for the principle of universal love. Having been present at the premieres of both works, I can attest to the overwhelmingly powerful effect each produces in live performance.

Flagello’s Passion of Martin Luther King is constructed along the lines of an oratorio, in which five choral settings of Latin liturgical texts alternate with solo settings of lines taken from King’s speeches. Actually, the choral portions originated in a work entitled Pentaptych, which Flagello had composed in 1953, but which had left him with certain reservations. King’s assassination fifteen years later crystallized for him the realization that the eloquent words of the contemporary spiritual leader could provide just the human focus that the Pentaptychlacked. He immediately restructured the work, selecting excerpts from King’s speeches and setting them in an expressive arioso that blends seamlessly with the choral portions, in such a way that the vernacular solo element continually reverberates against the timeless spirituality of the Latin choral sections in a deeply moving synergy. As it stood in 1968, thePassion ended with a setting of “I Have a Dream,” followed by a choral Jubilate Deo, and it is this version, on a never-released recording with brother Ezio as soloist, that has circulated through the tape underground. However, in 1973, James DePreist, who was preparing to conduct the first public performance, persuaded Flagello to omit these two sections, for reasons that have never. been made clear to me. Flagello acquiesced to this request, composing an ecstatic new finale based on material that appears earlier in the work, and this is the version we now hear. Years later, Flagello conceded that DePreist’s suggestion improved the work’s effectiveness, but he remained fond of the “I Have a Dream ” Jubilate Deo sequence. He had begun to compose another choral work, to be called Psalmus Americanus, which would incorporate this material, but never completed it.

One of the reasons I have presented all this background information is to explain that the music of the Passion, though dated 1968, reflects many characteristics of Flagello’s ultra-Romantic pre-1959 style — more deliberate pacing, greater metrical regularity, more consonant harmonic language, and an unambiguous sense of tonality. As always, the orchestration is sumptuous and virile with no stinting on the climaxes, and the choral writing is gorgeous, with especially exquisite part-writing in the Cor Jesu and the Stabat Mater, the solo settings of King’s words are apt although, admittedly, the refined bel canto approach is a far cry from the robust rhetoric of black evangelical preaching. In truth, despite the extravagant grandeur of the music, this is a very personal, almost mystical, interpretation of Martin Luther King, rather than a work of social consciousness. Bass Raymond Bazemore lends poignant expression to his part, but a richer, fuller, more operatic voice could do better justice to it. James DePreist, who has conducted the work many times, continues to lend it his tremendous intelligence and musical sensitivity.

Joseph Schwantner was born in 1943 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for an orchestral work called Aftertones of Infinity. As one of the defectors from academic serialism, he and his work received a good deal of attention around that time. Schwantner developed a distinctive approach that combined an exquisite sensitivity to fanciful gestures and delicate, ethereal sonorities — reminiscent of George Crumb — with phantasmagoric verbal imagery, and frequent use of tonal, consonant musical elements, resulting in a colorful and accessible musical surface with some New Age qualities. For some reason, his work seems to have lost the spotlight more recently, although many of the younger orchestral composers who have emerged during the past decade have used his techniques.

New Morning for the World was composed in 1982, though, like the Flagello, it also draws upon material used in earlier pieces. It is scored for narrator and orchestra, and its musical content is more straightforward and conventional than in any other of Schwantner’s works known to me. Only its copious use of technicolor percussion effects dates it as a work of the final quarter of this century. In the manner of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the orchestra serves as a backdrop, creating a vivid framework of moods and emotions against which the extensive excerpts from King’s speeches are highlighted. Although the orchestra is frequently in the foreground, the text, with its own very musical sense of oratory, is the central point of focus, and retains a much stronger sense of its own identity than in the Flagello. The brilliantly scored music combines elements of an urgent, exhortatory nature with hushed, fervent, hymnlike passages, which ultimately merge in an ecstatic climax whose effect is hard to resist. 

Schwantner’s work was initially recorded shortly after its premiere, with baseball star Willie Stargell as narrator. He handled his role with eloquence and dignity, and I have never been able to understand why that recording has not been reissued on CD. In my review (Fanfare7:2, pp. 307-08), I expressed a sense of ambivalence about the work, describing my reaction as “somewhat, like weeping at a sentimental melodrama, while being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response.” There is a tremendous reliance on sure fire musical devices, without the density of structure, or the sense of multiple dimensions that the Flagello offers. On the other hand, having revisited the work periodically during the twelve years since its premiere, I can testify that it retains its power. It is an enormously effective work, as satisfying in its way as Copland’s enduring memorial to Lincoln. As narrator, Raymond Bazemore offers a touching reading of King’s profound words.

Rather than producing the sense of redundancy that I feared, bringing together the two works and their differing perspectives enables them to complement each other beautifully, as Mrs. King states in her introductory notes, making this a recording of historical, as well as musical, significance.

Though less weighted with extramusical interest, the Albany disc is an equally rewarding new release, and features four premiere recordings.

Both the Flagello and Giannini works are flavored by Baroque stylistic features, though in the pieces by Flagello, these aspects are minimal. Serenata, composed in 1968 for chamber orchestra, is an entertaining diversion — virtually the only one of his mature works that is devoid of emotional stress. Its four-movement design is modeled loosely on the Baroque suite, but its musical content is thoroughly Romantic, and generally warm and cheerful in tone.

Flagello’s 1959 Concerto for String Orchestra actually displays explicit use of Baroque features in its outer movements, but not in the “Andante Languido” that forms the central slow movement, offered on this recording. Listeners new to Flagello’s music may think of the elegiac poignancy of Barber’s Adagio, combined with the somber severity of Honegger’s Second Symphony and the pathos of the Adagio lamentoso from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. But those familiar with his work know that this heartbreaking lament is echt Flagello in its purest form — one of his core creations (as well as one of his own personal favorites). The entireConcerto would be most welcome on recording, but the “Andante Languido” is certainly effective-and affecting — on its own.

Neoromantic adaptations of Baroque forms and concepts was a key preoccupation of Vittorio Giannini (Flagello’s teacher and mentor)-especially during the 1940s and 50s. The Concerto Grosso of 1946 and Prelude and Fugue of 1955 — both for string orchestra — are excellent examples of his approach, and listeners who enjoy Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1, Creston’sPartita, and the Albinoni-Giazotto Adagio will certainly respond to these ingratiating pieces. The outer movements of the Concerto Grosso are bustling and vigorous, at times suggesting the composer’s proclivity for opera buffa, and with lots of eighteenth-century-style counterpoint. The slow movement is an impassioned expression of grief that combines Italianate lyricism with a Bach-like sense of gravity.

The Prelude and Fugue is essentially cut from the same cloth, but I like it even more. It is somewhat more tightly structured and equally heartfelt, with a terrifically exhilarating and beautifully elaborated fugue in quintuple meter. Giannini was an enormously appealing composer whose large and varied output remains unexplored. With this release, and the disc of twenty-four songs (ACA CM-20011-11: see Fanfare 16:1, pp. 242-44), perhaps the exploration is beginning. With most of Howard Hanson’s output available on recording, the equally accessible (and far better crafted) music of Giannini is the next logical step for the growing number of listeners drawn to this generation of American neoromantics.

As a bonus, the Albany disc includes the first recording of Morton Gould’s Harvest. This fourteen-minute tone poem scored for strings with harp and vibraphone is more ambitious and serious in tone than most of Gould’s better-known pieces, with less emphasis on overtly vernacular elements. It was composed in 1945, during the period when Gould was at the height of his fame — when his weekly light-music series on radio made him a household name, and Dmitri Mitropoulos was introducing his Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. If Flagello and Giannini were out of touch with their times, Morton Gould has always been a man of his time. Yet from today’s perspective, as the musical personalities of Flagello and Giannini seem to transcend their time and place, Gould’s work reveals so little other than its time and place, reflected through counterfeits of then-fashionable Harris and Copland works. In a certain sense. this makes Harvest one of Gould’s most revealing pieces.

David Amos conducted these recordings in Moscow with a group called the New Russia Orchestra. They play with considerable accuracy and sensitivity, producing some of the most incisive performances I have heard under Amos’s sympathetic direction. The sound quality of this disc, as well as the Koch disc, is superb.   

CRESTON: Symphony No. 5. Choreografic Suite. Toccata. Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. POULENC: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. BEREZOWSKY: Fantasie for Two Pianos and Orchestra.

CRESTON: Symphony No. 5. Choreografic Suite. Toccata. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the New York Chamber Symphony. DELOS DE 3127 [DDD]; 68:35. Produced by Amelia Haygood and Adam Stern.

CRESTON: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. POULENC: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. BEREZOWSKY: Fantasie for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas, pianos; David Amos conducting the Polish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra. ALBANY TROY 112 [DDD]; 54:08. Produced by Beata Jankowska-Burzynska.

The music of Paul Creston is more popular right now than it has been at any time during the past forty years. The generous and varied serving of music found on these two new CDs documents this revival of interest, while amply displaying both the attractions and the limitations of this distinctive figure, illustrating the unique place he holds among his generation of American composers. (For background information and commentary, seeFanfare 14:6, pp. 143-44, 16:2, pp. 221-22). The Delos disc represents the second installment of Gerard Schwarz’s Creston survey and features three works never before available on recording (although an excellent performance of Choreografrc Suite conducted by Jorge Mester has sat “in the can” for years without ever being released). The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra presented on the Albany disc is also a first recording.

Creston composed his Fifth Symphony in 1955, when his reputation was at its zenith. It is the most serious in tone of his six symphonies, with a focus on subjective emotional distress that make it a real rarity among his oeuvre. Creston’s contribution to the “victory through struggle” symphonic genre, the work is in three movements, the first of which presents an explosively agitated and turbulent statement of the problem: the second, an alternately reflective and grandly dramatic lament; and the finale, an assertion of defiance and purpose, which propels itself with incredible force and intensity to a triumphant conclusion. As with Creston’s few other serious-toned works, the symphony displays a tough, earthy grimness and a tendency toward melodrama reminiscent of the film noir style popular during the 1940s. It is always tightly argued motivically, but its emotional extremism does at times spill over into grandiose overstatement, which conductor Schwarz wisely and successfully attempts to rein in, heightening rather than diminishing the effect.

Creston composed his Toccata two years later, to showcase the virtuosity of the Cleveland Orchestra and its conductor George Szell. It is the sort of rousing and exuberant curtain-raiser for which Creston became somewhat typecast, with many solo passages that highlight individual members of the orchestra. The work is also something of a compositional tour de force, featuring sixty-five different rhythmic patterns within 3/4 meter. The overlapping interactions of these different, irregularly accented rhythmic patterns are the most distinctive aspect of Creston’s art, and create a sort of manic giddiness that raises the music above the trivial and conventional. However, in order to achieve this effect, the conductor must drive the music forward, and in this piece Schwarz tends to let the momentum sag at times.

The Choreografic Suite was composed in 1965. Creston was something of a pedant, and his efforts to revise rhythmic notation, to purge it of “irrational” practices were paralleled by a fascination with verbal language, and an impatience with the irrationality of English spelling. For a time he adopted an “improved” mode of spelling, which crept into the title of this work, although I don’t know why he didn’t spell it “Koreografic.” Anyway, the work consists of five movements of contrasting mood — really essays in motion — in Creston’s lightest, most accessible vein, providing an abstract framework for choreographic interpretation. It is formally analogous to the popular Partita for flute, violin, and strings — minus the neo-baroque overlay — composed thirty years earlier. Indeed, Creston’s propensity for depicting states of motion, rather than expressing states of emotion, points to the essentially Baroque character of his musical content, though realized in a Romantic/Impressionistic language, intensified by twentieth-century rhythmic features. The Choreografic Suite is too innocuously benign for my taste, but would be highly effective in the context of a pops concert. Again, Schwarz’s overly relaxed tempos — especially in the “Burletta” movement — emphasize the blandness of the music.       

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra was written in 1951 and consists of three movements — two rollicking Allegros flanking a central Andante pastorale marked by a tender lyricism. Virtuoso showpieces for solo instrument(s) and orchestra form another significant component of Creston’s output. Almost without exception they are sunny, energetic, and exuberant works that follow a conventional formal layout. Yet though their tone is pops-concert light and spontaneous, they display an attention to disciplined motivic development that gives the music more substance and durability than may be apparent upon casual acquaintance. This is the key to understanding Creston’s music and it is not lost on program annotator Eric Salzman. It is for all these qualities outlined above that Creston’s music cannot be mistaken for that of any other composer.

The prolifically recorded two-piano team of Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas offer an absolutely bang-up performance of Creston’s concerto, with all the propulsive drive this music requires. They apply a similar approach to Poulenc’s irresistibly mischievous stylistic grab-bag, which may shock listeners used to a more elegantly Gallic reading, though others will find its vigor and virility refreshing. Nicolai Berezowsky was a Russian-American composer-conductor-violinist who lived from 1900 to 1953. His eleven-minute Fantasie is another vigorous and assertive work, suggesting Alexandre Tcherepnin flavored by Ernest Bloch.

For the past fifteen years, Pierce and Jonas have been gradually recording much of the two-piano literature, with a particular emphasis on work of the twentieth century. Perhaps because they do not have a relationship with any particular label, but have recorded for many, they have not had the benefit of publicity that might draw attention to their work. But their recordings have been consistently reliable, and have brought to light many worthwhile compositions. In addition, Pierce has done a good deal of recording as a solo artist, including an indispensable disc devoted to the piano music of Nicolas Flagello (Premier PRCD-1014; see Fanfare 15:1. pp. 216-18).

And while we are on the subject of unheralded recording artists, consider for a moment conductor David Amos, who leads the Polish Radio and Television Orchestra in providing Pierce and Jonas with solid orchestral support. He is another who has not had the benefit of an identity created in association with a single record company or orchestra. But it bears noting that the current enthusiasm for composers like Paul Creston, Alan Hovhaness, Arnold Rosner, and many others whose music is now being investigated by better-known conductors and orchestras began toward the end of the LP era with recordings conducted by David Amos. Indeed, lately it often appear as if his large discography serves as a repertoire blueprint for other conductors and record companies. Yes, sometimes these others have had the resources to produce more polished recordings than Amos’s pioneering efforts, but he deserves a good deal of credit for his foresight, discrimination, and courage in investigating areas of the repertoire that had not yet demonstrated their commercial viability. These comments do not intend in any way to diminish the accomplishments of Gerard Schwarz, who is making a tremendous contribution through his enormously informative and valuable survey of American symphonic music. Both these conductors have made major infusions into an all but moribund orchestral repertoire.

In conclusion, let me direct the powers that be to the most significant remaining gaps in the discography of Paul Creston. First, three orchestral works: Chthonic Ode, a thirteen-minute homage to the sculptor Henry Moore, in which an uncharacteristically dissonant harmonic language, in combination with characteristic rhythmic irregularities, serve to suggest the power, massiveness, and a symmetry of Moore’s work; Janus, the most fully realized example of Creston’s favorite prelude-and-dance format; and Symphony No. I, which first brought the composer widespread public attention — a work whose four compact movements each set forth one of the main expressive veins Creston was to mine throughout his career. Also among his most ambitious and fully realized efforts are two compositions for piano solo:Metamorphoses, a large and elaborate set of variations on a twelve-tone theme, and Three Narratives, a trio of highly virtuosic fantasies that might be seen as Creston’s answer toGaspard de la Nuit. None of these works has ever been recorded in any format.      


PERMIT ME VOYAGE: SONGS BY AMERICAN COMPOSERS. Mary Ann Hart mezzo soprano; Dennis Helmrich, piano. ALBANY TROY-118 [DDD]; 71:49. Produced by Judith Sherman. ARGENTO: From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. CARTER: Voyage. COWELL: Three Songs. FLANAGAN: Two Songs. HUNDLEY: Four Songs GORDON: Two Songs. SCHOCKER: Mama Called

MOSTLY AMERICANA. Jennifer Poffenberger, soprano; Lori Piitz piano. ENHARMONIC ENCD93-012 [DDD?]; 66:06. Produced by David DeBoor Canfield. (Available from: Ars Antiqua, 6060 McNeely Street, Ellettsville. Indiana 47429) HUNDLEY: Eight Songs. LEHMAN: Pilgrim Songs. ROREM: Five Songs.BAKER: Song Cycle. MENOTTI: The Medium (Monica’s Aria) TURINA: Poema en forma de canciones

Here are two enjoyable and informative American vocal miscellanies, well performed and recorded, that cover similar — one might even say, overlapping — repertoire, though one features a soprano, the other a mezzo. To begin with the Albany disc, mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Hart opens her program with Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Unlike most Pulitzer Prize-winning music, this work has become a classic in only twenty years. Argento himself is quoted in the notes as saying, “Not a week goes by that I do not receive a letter from a singer or a listener saying how moved they were by a performance of the “Virginia Woolf Diary.” This is its fourth recording, at least, although unfortunately it was never committed to disc by Janet Baker, who premiered it and for whom it was written in 1974. Not so much a “song cycle” as a group of interior monologues set tomusic, From the Diary… is a work of extraordinary freshness, sensitivity, intelligence, and originality, with a rarefied lyricism that weaves in and out of tonal focus throughspontaneous stylistic shifts that parallel the shifting levels of reference in the diary entries, from description and reminiscence to reflection and commentary. It is a work to which one returns eagerly, deriving ever-deepening pleasure and richness of meaning. The only comparable vocal music I can think of isVincent Persichetti’s Harmonium (1951), an hour-long cycle of twenty Wallace Stevens settings. (This masterpiece has been recorded only once, on a 2-LP set issued in 1979 by Arizona State University [see Fanfare 5:21).

I am familiar with two of the previous recordings of From the Diary…: I preferred Marta Schele’s on Proprius to Virginia Dupuy’s on Gasparo, but I prefer Mary Ann Hart’s to either of them. Hers is a tad smoother and more controlled than Schele’s; both have pleasant voices and offer intelligent musical readings, but the latter is afflicted by a slight hootiness. 

Mary Ann Hart has chosen to follow the Argento with a setting by Elliott Carter of a portion of Hart Crane’s Voyages. The music, dating from 1945, is serious and demanding, but not impenetrable, falling somewhere along the lines of the composer’s sonatas for piano and for cello, written at about the same time The-6-minute setting is not as immediately convincing as the Argento, but it encourages deeper acquaintance.

The three songs (selected seemingly at random from about a zillion) by Henry Cowell were composed at different times during his career, and share little in common other than mixing the odd and the conventional. They are quite uninteresting and contribute little to the program. William Flanagan wrote some nasty criticism, as well as music — mostly songs — before committing suicide in 1969, at the age of 46.  “Horror Movie” is oh-so-sophisticated and clever, while “Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” is a very sweet and pretty setting of a strangely gentle poem by Gertrude Stein. Richard Hundley is the one composer who appears on both these discs and I will comment on him later. The songs by Ricky Ian Gordon and Gary Schacker are in a much lighter — almost pop — vein. They are simple and cute and, at times, quite touching.

Mary Ann Hart is familiar to Fanfare readers through her work on Albany’s project to record the Ives songs; she also appears on the soundtrack of the Disney Beauty and the Beast and teaches on the Vassar faculty. She is consistently fine on this recording, as is her pianist, Dennis Helmrich.

Jennifer Poffenberger studied at the University of Indiana, where this recital was recorded. She has a light, pleasant soprano, which she  employs with intelligence, providing us with another rewarding recital. (However, a minor editing glitch — between the Hundley and Rorem groups — must be noted.)

Richard Hundley is a composer in his sixties who concentrated on vocal music. He studied with Virgil Thomson and William Flanagan, and his many songs have appeared regularly on recital programs for years, arid are now beginning to appear on recordings. Yet he is listed in neither The New Grove nor Baker’s. I am not sure how to explain this absence of recognition and documentation, but I suspect that it is attributable to a lack of academic affiliation combined with a concentration on what is often viewed as a peripheral genre. I wonder what Ned Rorem would have to say on the subject. It is worth a moment of reflection because the eight songs on this Enharmonic disc, the four on the Albany disc (none of which overlap), along with others I have chanced upon over the years, indicate a real talent. Listening to these songs, one is struck by their genuineness, their naturalness, and their spontaneous ease of expression, as well as their lack of pretension. Hundley has a light touch — there is nothing deep, disturbing, or problematical about these songs. But I can think of many more imposing figures who would be hard-pressed to come up with a song as appealing as “Come Ready and See Me,” for example.

Also worthy of attention are the Pilgrim Songs (1989) of Mark Louis Lehman. Like William Flanagan before him, Lehman (b. 1947) is active both as a critic — and an excellent one, at that — and as a composer. In addition to writing regularly for the American Record Guide, he is a member of the English faculty at the University of Cincinnati. Lehman wrote the poems as well as the music for this attractive cycle, whose seven songs form a series of impressions and reflections along a spiritual journey, set within an ancient world of the imagination. This framework gives the cycle a nicely shaped coherence. The poet-composer’s own program notes describe the concept unerringly, when he writes, “Both lyrics and music have a faintly archaic flavor,” and notes the music’s “modal, folksong-like style.” I can only enlarge on this by pointing to the simply-textured, generally two-voiced piano accompaniments, enlivened by melismatic arabesques, and featuring much use of perfect intervals. The cycle is balladic, rather than dramatic, with a generally even emotional tone, except for “In the Storm. It is all very pretty and appealing.

The group of five songs by Ned Rorem are among his earliest (1946-53) and most popular. They are also, I must admit, among my favorites, especially “Pippa’s Song,” which, once heard, is never forgotten

Then there are the odds and ends. The familiar waltz from The Medium is typically ingratiating. David Baker’s 1969 Song Cycle is notably less interesting than everything else on the disc and its presence can only be explained with reference to his eminence on the University of Indiana faculty. And Turing’s Poema en forma de canciones (1918) is pleasant enough for those tolerant of the limitations of Debussy-influenced Iberiana. But, like, hey — what do they have to do with a CD featuring mid-20th-century American music? The “mostly” in the title isn’t an adequate excuse.

This leads to my only real criticism — it is relatively minor, but it applies to both discs, which otherwise offer a fair share of pleasant listening. Neither program has any real conceptual coherence: the music varies so much and so disparately with regard to quality, style, weight, and tone that the result in each case is really a grab-bag, rather than a recital. Not that all the music on a recital should sound the same, but variety can be planned and balanced in such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, so to speak. But, as 1 said, this is a minor matter. Otherwise, the performances are excellent, as is most of the music.